There is a particular art to creating and nourishing a dark atmosphere in a book with a real setting – especially without relishing in or glorifying the very real pain of the past. Nicole Lundrigan’s The Widow Tree is a gothic mystery set in Yugoslavia in 1953, when three teenagers uncover a hoard of Roman coins buried in a field. The brash János wants to keep them, Dorján is less sure, and Nevena – the girl the two of them both love – wants to turn them over to the state and into the keeping of her father the Komandant. When János disappears, though, Dorján and Nevena are left keeping the secret, and wondering if he ran off with the money and left them behind.
The book is a specific kind of dark; it isn’t fantasy, or even anywhere near the speculative realm, and I’d be hard-pressed to classify it as horror. Instead, it’s gothic in the truest sense; it’s atmospherically dark, digging into human motivations that are as cruel as they are honest, and as kind as they are complex. The mystery itself has a conclusion that isn’t surprising in and of itself, but the mystery in and of itself isn’t the point – the point is the people.
The atmosphere, writing and characterization of this book are the big sells, but if you need a faster-paced plot, this isn’t the book for you – nor is it for you if you’re a hopeless romantic. It’s a cynical book, which is appropriate given its setting, but you should know that going in. The main thing that disappoints me is how it touches on and uses certain oppressions as backdrop without ever significantly challenging them; one of the characters’ father is a ‘gypsy’ (Romani, not that the novel uses the term) and suffers greatly for other reasons, but none of his trials are ever put in the context of his ethnicity and the other Romani in the novel are background thieves. Another character is the local ‘simple boy’, also targeted, and the novel makes a small concession to why but also never really challenges it.
If you like the historical atmosphere of Sarah Waters’ ‘Fingersmith’ and the intrigue of Gillian Flynn’s ‘Gone Girl’, this is a book to give a try.
The Widow Tree is available here: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/the-widow-tree/9781771000710-item.html
and here: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-widow-tree-nicole-lundrigan/1116792016