cover image A Crooked Tree

A Crooked Tree

Una Mannion. Harper, $27.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-304984-0

An Irish American family unravels in Mannion’s atmospheric if overstuffed debut, set in rural Valley Forge, Pa., in the early 1980s. A fight among pensive 15-year-old narrator Libby Gallagher’s four siblings escalates on the long drive home from school at the mention of their estranged father’s recent death, leading their mother to order 12-year-old Ellen out of the car. Ellen walks for miles along the desolate highway, and when she returns in the middle of the night, dirt and blood smeared across her face, she tells Libby she’d hitched a ride from a “creepy” man and jumped out of the moving car after he molested her. Soon, a friend assembles a gang to hunt down and beat Ellen’s attacker, whom Ellen calls Barbie Man for his long white hair. But Ellen had told Barbie Man where she lives, and Libby fears he might come for them. Meanwhile, amid nostalgic memories of their father and a series of unremarkable high school coming-of-age scenes, moments of the girls' discomfort and scenes of sexual abuse give the book a prevailing sense of foreboding around other adult men. The novel builds suspense with additional sightings of Barbie Man, but it culminates in an implausible denouement with too many questions left unanswered. Mannion writes skillfully but fails to unify a hodgepodge plot. (Jan.)

This review has been updated.