Book Review : Leah Erickson - The Brambles (2017)
Most people are introduced to the concept of death through the passing of an elderly relative. It's a slow and gradual process that eases you to the reality of what Leonard Cohen called "the great defeat that awaits us all." Sometimes, it doesn't happen like that, though. A young person goes out violently. The existence of en entire community is thrown out of balance and people are scrambling for a meaning that most often isn't there. Leah Erickson's latest novel The Brambles is a book about that. It's also a young adult supernatural mystery featuring a crazy religion and a biker gang, but it is, at heart, about death and meaning (or lack thereof).
The story of The Brambles revolves around the death of Elizabeth Gray, a mysterious young woman living in quasi-seclusion with her wealthy mother. She is found hanged from a tree without any explanation or possible motive, which doesn't suit Mack, Lilian and Vanessa, three local kids who used to be childhood playmates with Elizabeth. They begin an investigation that will lead them to the Brambles, a property owned by a sickly and filthy rich elderly movie star named Mitch Cooper, where a defrocked priest and a motorcycle gang hang out (figure of speech). There is more to Elizabeth Gray's passing than just loneliness and depression.
So, so much more.
The Brambles is somewhat outside of my comfort zone. Why did I like a novel featuring teen investigators, a supernatural mystery and a weird religious conspiracy? Valid question. The answer is boring, though : it's well-written. Leah Erickson's technical proficiency and overall talent take The Brambles much further than it should've went. There is notably enough space for every character to be interesting. By that, I mean every character. Annabel Gray (Elizabeth's mother) and that Doctor Honeybear guy (awesome name, by the way) for example, who are essentially support characters, have enough quirks and details to them to be interesting on their own and not just through their interactions with the protagonists.
It doesn't always play to the advantage of The Brambles, though. I mean, it mostly does, but there are many, many characters in this novel and the majority of them gets proper resolution, so it gets somewhat convoluted in the second half. It doesn't all culminate in one epic final showdown. There is one, but it doesn't involve everybody. To be honest, I don't know how to feel about that. On one hand, it was pretty cool to take care of every variables and offer a big portrait like nineteenth century novelists used to do and on the other, it made for long and confusing chapters where I lost the highway a couple times. Either way, I appreciated the uncompromising nature of The Brambles. It's rare to find in a young adult novel.
It's not the discourse of The Brambles that I liked, but the way it was constructed. I've read countless books where death was not the end and crazy cult people were trying to transcend our reality. I mean, it doesn't just happen in fiction.
It's how Leah Erickson unpacked an entire microcosm around this process of transcendence that I liked. There are characters terrified of death, others confused by it, some who think they hold agency over it, Erickson expressed an idea is clearer and more engaging terms than many others before her have tried to express. It's also a young adult novel that I would also suggest to actual young adults, which is rare, since most of them are written by adults with unresolved issues for adults with unresolved issues. An overall pleasant read to start off 2018..