Vivian and Nowell are taking a year off work to refurbish the house of Nowell’s recently deceased Grandmother. Vivian feels an unexplainable sense of dread from the second she joins Nowell at the house, following a few weeks he has spent there with his brother, apparently beginning the long and arduous task of revitalising a home that has fallen into disrepair. Her unease deepens quickly when the police appear at their door informing them that the body of a local teenage girl has been discovered in the woods on the border of their property and that of their mysterious neighbour Mr Stokes. When Vivian starts to ask questions about the girl, her family, and the history of Nowell’s own family in this quiet town, she begins to believe that not only are people being evasive with her, but that they may actually be lying, and that everybody but her knows more about the accidental death of this young girl than she does.
As fictional storylines go, there is nothing startlingly original here. It’s quite standard fare. Nothing in the plot makes you sit up and wonder where this writer gets her ideas from. But, for a debut novelist, Mary Vensel White does manage her plot with levels of subtlety and control that suggest she is an extremely capable writer who may find her way to more impressive ideas in the future. In a novel about a dead teenage girl, there are many expected outcomes. White doesn’t use any of them. Although the end may be a little quiet and understated for some, it is certainly to White’s credit that it is not at all predictable and yet still seems entirely plausible.
The Qualities of Wood is also full of realistic characters and dialogue which sit perfectly alongside the measured tone. As well as Vivian and Nowell, a couple whose difficulties are pushed to the forefront by the tense situation they find themselves in, White fills the novel with a cast of background characters that add suspense, intrigue, and humour. Nowell’s brother Lonnie and his new wife Dot are the source of the novel’s impetus after they move in to help with the house. Katherine is the town busybody that many such novels have, but without being a cliché. And the mother of the dead girl is a convincing representation of a grief-stricken parent. The only character that doesn’t seem completely real is Mr Stokes. He’s a little too shadowy, and his appearances are often too coincidental, so the reader senses early that he may be there as nothing more than a red herring.
Any Cop?: While this debut won’t be winning any awards for originality, there is enough in the writing and characterisation to make it a worthwhile read. Avoiding cliché with this type of story is difficult, and White has done a good job of that. It will be interesting to see where the author goes next – she’s definitely a good enough writer to produce something more unique and exciting in the future.