American Sycamore by Karen Fielding

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Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

It is lovely to be able to heartily recommend a début novel published by a smaller independent publisher – American Sycamore is exactly that and it deserves a wide readership.

Set in the 1970s, it’s a coming of age story of two siblings, Alice and Billy Sycamore who grow up in a small town by the Susquehanna River in north-eastern USA.

Billy is two years older than Alice. He is a keen fly-fisherman and spends a most of his time on the river, very at home with nature, fishing …

The Terry twins, identical fair-haired sisters who would grow into the well-earned titles ‘Herpes I’ and ‘Herpes II’, liked to hang out by the river. […] They did all of this fishing fabrication to impress Billy because Billy was most handsome: eyes the colour of river algae, and black lashes like the long, evening shadows in a mountain stream. His dusky blond hair grew into a wild curly haze. He had a smile that was infectious but uneven; when he turned fourteen he removed his braces with a wrench.

The moment I read the hilarious description of the Terry twins on page 13, I knew I was going to get on with this book, and especially its narrator, Alice, who is two years younger than Billy and obviously adores him. We get the feel that Billy was popular, in a bit of a Bart Simpson way, but events later in the decade will turn that love of adventure and pranking into something altogether darker.

First, we have some growing up to do. Living by the banks of the river, flooding is always a possibility, but it can be stormy too and Alice is scared stiff of lightning in the dark. Billy loves it. ‘He liked the dark. He thought about the electric chair.’  – an artefact that becomes something of a fixation for Billy.  Their mother is also paranoid about storms, anxious that their father returns home she rings the hospital where he works – again.

After several minutes she’d return to the table looking crazier than before. She was beautiful, our mother; an extrovert yet flammable, a walking can of gasoline just waiting for a match.

Some of the descriptions of the characters in this book are so beautifully constructed – if that of the twins made me laugh, the description above of their mother made me gasp a little. Another, of some new neighbours totally encapsulates their character in just one sentence: ‘The Stanleys were the sort of people who had commissioned an oil painting of their dog.’ Ain’t it just so.

Then one day when Billy is twelve, he is off fishing on his own, and meets a stranger in the woods. What happens during this encounter will be the trigger to the start of mental illness and a long and tragic decline for Billy through his teenage years. You know through Alice’s memories that he’s always been eccentric, but this damages him and he comes out of the woods a different young man.

Over the next years Billy is in and out of hospital, unsuccessfully doing a series of dead-end jobs, off drinking with Joseph Lightfoot, a drifter and descendant of the Iroquois Indians who first lived in the area; treading that borderline between sanity and madness.  We wonder what really happened that day on the riverbank. Who was the stranger?

Alice takes the brunt of it all, looking after Billy and her family, making the necessary excuses, but always wondering too, was what Billy thinks happened real? Eventually she’ll get away to work in New York, but her heart too is always back on the Susquehanna River.

The sense of place just oozes out of this novel, flowing gently like the river. The river and its environs seem so real, as does Alice and Billy’s lives – Billy however, goes against the current, fighting it like the fish swimming upstream. I was enthralled by the rhythms in Fielding’s writing of this offbeat tale. There is a somewhat dreamlike quality to her prose, which is also studded with humour. The chapters are short, almost vignettes, as they jump back and forwards a little, but this meandering in time intrigued rather than irritated.

Fielding is an American living in London, and this book is published by Seren Books, a Welsh publisher whose series of novels New tales from the Mabinogion I am very much an admirer of. The press release likened this book to Richard Brautigan via George Saunders; I don’t have enough experience of either of those authors, but I like the allusion and I’d add a good dash of Alice Hoffman with a little Anne Tyler into the mix too. American Sycamore is a hauntingly effective first novel – I loved it.

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Karen Fielding, American Sycamore (Seren, 2014) paperback original, 200 pages.

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