The Plot: Sunday morning. Evie, sixteen, is delivering newspapers and hoping to run into Jonah Luks. Jonah…the college drop out who, on Sundays, goes to the woods and bags up the dead animals so the people living in upscale Hokepe can walk in the forest without having to see, well, real nature.
Evie is the type of girl with no real friends; her short encounters with Jonah, never more than a handful of words, are spun into something, something more, a story, a tale, interesting, when she tells the girls at school on Monday. Girls she eats lunch with; not girls who are friends.
Until the Sunday when Jonah finds a dead girl. Zabet, who years ago, before high school, before middle school, was Evie’s friend. A handful of words later, a half made up story later, and Evie finds herself friends with Hadley, Zabet’s friend, and finding out more about Zabet and Hadley and friendship.
The Good: Evie is a hard person to like. Evie knew Zabet years ago, before she dropped four letters, when she was Elizabeth. So long ago, that Evie shouldn’t be affected by her death. Is she? Evie is a hard person to know. She thinks about Zabet, about her death, but it is almost at a distance, as if she doesn’t want to admit to a loss: “I didn’t sleep much last night. It was like I lay down in that little crawlspace between awake and asleep, almost dreaming, then almost waking, then almost dreaming again. It’s not that I was grieving or anything, though of course I thought about Zabet.”
Evie, not grieving, but when she goes to the funeral she gets physically ill, cannot sit through the service, hides in a room where she finds another mourner. Evie, who is always telling herself and others stories, both imagining the future and other lives and refining her past, tells the man she is Zabet’s best friend.
The man turns out to be Zabet’s father, Mr. McCabe. Divorced, he knows so little about his daughter’s life that he believes Evie. Perhaps recognizes her name from so many years ago, so doesn’t suspect that Evie is a liar. Evie’s lies catch up to her, because Mr. McCabe invites her to dinner, along with Hadley, Zabet’s real best friend.
I read The Space Between Trees almost as nauseous as Evie at the funeral; Evie, so real, so odd, so separated from her world. The stories she tells — “For a second, it’s so real that I believe it might actually have happened the way I’m telling it.” Meeting Hadley, who for her own reasons doesn’t confront Evie about her lies to Mr. McCabe, pulls Evie into Hadley’s world, into the type of friendship Hadley and Zabet had. Evie is confronted by reality, and by the consequences of lies.
A girl is dead. The more we learn about Hadley, about Zabet, about Evie, the more the reader sees these are just three teenage girls. Each with secrets, lies, issues. Yes, there is a mystery element to this book, but the true mystery solved is how we interact with each other, the lives we touch, the lies we tell, to others and ourselves. And the lies we need.
I felt so disturbed reading this book I had to flip to the end, to see what happened, then returned to the middle. Williams’ writing is brilliant and beautiful and haunting; it is heart pounding, not because its a whodunit adventure but because it is a psychological look at a girl and friendship and our connections to each other. When I tweeted while reading this, I noted that I got a “creepy vibe” from Evie. It’s the distance she keeps from others, it’s the life held at arm’s length, it’s the lies she tells. You are driven to turn the page, as Hadley pulls her into a life, a life with different types of lies, and different consequences.
Because it is so haunting — because even as think back to Evie, and Evie and Hadley, and Zabet, my heart starts to race a little — I’m adding this to my Favorite Books Read in 2010. Since this is Williams’ first novel, I hope to see it on the Morris shortlist in December.