– 4/5 (Great!)
Release Date: 25 November 2018 (UK)
Publisher: Unsung Stories (UK)
Genre: Adult fiction, historical, fantasy
How I read it: I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Get it at Amazon UK: The Willow By Your Side
The woods. Dreams and portents. Youth. Magic runs through all of them. But in the aftermath of war a young boy is twisted and tested trying to hold his family together.
As his sister recovers from a terrible assault by her father, she teaches him about the magic in the land, the tombs of ancient kings and the wishing lake, about the treacherous Red Cap and the places deep in the woods where the adults don’t go.
But when she disappears, the balance fails. Parents divided by their pain and all eyes in the village turn to the father, a man who brought his own nightmares back from the war. They search the woods, pushing deeper into the strange spaces where myths grow with the trees. But only the boy knows the secret paths they took, and the way to the lake where wishes come true.
THE WILLOW BY YOUR SIDE is a very intriguing, twisting novel – one I think I’d usually pass over, but when Unsung Stories offered me a copy and I had a better read of the blurb, I found myself interested by it. I don’t read a lot of adult fiction (though I’m trying to expand my reach beyond YA!) and this was a great step out of my comfort zone – I really enjoyed this one. I love my British folklore and there was plenty of that flowing through the veins of this novel.
It’s an odd book in terms of genre – it’s historical, and kind of fantasy? There’s bits of fantasy and bits of horror and bits of literary, surreal weirdness, and it fits together in this delightful, dark, eerie way. There’s folklore and myth in the blood of this story but it’s always hazy – is it real, or just happening in the mind of a distressed, emotional young boy? Is he really being chased by a Red Cap – or is it a manifestation of the darkness in his mind? Are those real soldiers in the woods, or are they figments of his imagination? It’s never really clear, but it ultimately doesn’t really matter. Whether they’re real or not, this is still a dark, twisted story with effectively drawn mystery and a broken family at its centre.
Our unnamed protagonist is a young boy, the only son of a former WWI soldier and his wife – he has an older sister, whose clash with their traumatised, violent father kicks off the plot of the book. The sister is attacked by their father in what seems like a fit of post-traumatic rage, and a few days later, she vanishes. The bulk of the book revolves around the boy trying to get to the lake – a secret place he believes his sister has gone to – although he has some surprising, and deadly, obstacles to overcome to get there.
One thing I took away from this book was just how effective the use of setting was – I felt like I’d been plunged into dank, soggy, post-WW1 Britain, following the footsteps of the boy as he searched for his sister across farmland and in the dark woods. It’s incredibly atmospheric, lending to the feeling that I was reading a dark yet oddly charming folktale. Despite being lavish in description and heavy on the atmosphere, it’s not a difficult read in any sense – the narration is oddly yet perfectly caught between a young boy and an old, wise storyteller. Sometimes I feel that some authors get so caught up trying to be mysterious and surreal that the story becomes utterly incomprehensible and I end up feeling like I didn’t ‘get’ it, but this didn’t happen for me here – it took a little while for some parts of the book to sink in, but I felt satisfied when they did.
Another element I thought was particularly effective was how the family was depicted – the boy’s father is an especially complex character. Even from the start we’re perplexed by how to view him – he’s clearly damaged from his war experiences, yet he seriously hurts his daughter. Over the course of the book his role becomes even more muddied – is he really loving and caring as his son sees him? Or is he a villain that hurts his daughter and may be the reason for her disappearance? Is he both? Is he neither? Even by the end of the story, with all the facts out in the open, I still felt conflicted about how to see him – something that made him feel incredibly real.
The novel ends with a heart-wrenching twist that paints the whole book in a brand new light – and reveals a saddening truth that rocked my understanding of the familial relationships in the story. It expertly balances a twisted, folklore-inspired adventure with the trials of a fractured family, and I couldn’t help but be sucked in. Definitely an excellent pick for this cold British winter…