White Pines: Gemma Amor
Reviewed By Tarn Richardson
Tom Petty’s Southern Accents album from 1985 is regarded by many of his fans as his most frustratingly brilliant album. A flawed masterpiece that so nearly got there, only to fall short because of time pressures, personal issues with band members and, primarily, its own daring ambition. (Don’t worry, there is a point to this and White Pines.)
After the album’s release, the critics largely banjaxed any hope of its assault on the charts, whilst Petty fixed himself and his smashed hand up, which he had put through the control room wall, and went on to mega-stardom with Jeff Lynne, The Traveling Wilburys and the utterly magnificent Wildflowers album (which every household should own).
Ambition is the most important tool for achieving success, that never-give-up can-do mentality that tramples over the doubts and the naysayers and makes things happen. Ambition is the one thing every writer needs. Ambition is the kindling to start the fire that sends your rocket to the stars. You just need to make sure the rocket is pointing at the right star to begin with. Ambition trumps talent every time, but occasionally you discover an author who has both ambition and talent. Which brings me neatly to Gemma Amor.
I’ve been aware of Gemma Amor for a couple of years now. During this time she’s released five works of fantasy horror fiction, White Pines being her most recent. She’s ambitious (of course), fiercely independent, dedicated to her craft and extremely hard working. (Five works in two years testament to this).
White Pines is the first work of hers that I have read, drawn to it by her own beautiful narration of the opening chapter last year. I was so impressed that I became a backer to help the project become a reality. Six months later, it was wonderful to finally read the finished manuscript, 200 pages of beautifully written literature that is part MR James, part James Herbert, part Tolkien and part Daphne du Maurier.
The story is told from the perspective of Megan, Megs to her friends, and chronicles the breakdown of her marriage, the inheritance of her grandmother’s Scottish cottage, Taigh Faire, the peculiar village it neighbours, the village’s inhabitants, seemingly the only population within the vicinity, and finally the island close to the cottage, with its White Pines and dark secrets.
Amor is a very talented writer, with the sensibilities and instinct to write with space between the words, to allow the reader to carry the story forward within themselves and form their own vision of events in their mind. Whilst so many writers overwrite, trying to detail every little aspect of a scene, character or event, it’s refreshing and impressive to discover a writer who has the lightness of touch to show but not tell, to open the door for the reader but not accompany them inside. There is an ethereal quality to her writing, at times breathtaking in its structure, bound up with an understated modesty, that is as pleasing as it is poetic.
There’s a moreish quality about her writing, not simply because of her exquisite use of English but also the size and originality of her imagination, the enormity of her plot lines, the folklore and a fabric into which everything weaves, as huge and as breathtaking as anything put down in literature for as long as I can remember.
And this is the point where we return Petty’s Southern Accents.
I adore Southern Accents, just like I do White Pines. But there’s this niggling splinter of frustration when I listen to that album, just like I felt when reading White Pines, that neither are quite as brilliant as they could have been. With Petty, I think he pushed himself too far during the album’s creation, both physically and mentally. With White Pines, I’m not sure Amor’s pushed herself quite far enough.
With the wonderful imagination Amor possesses and the potential White Pines world as big as the one she has hinted at, it felt as if only part of the mythology had been revealed to the reader. This might not seem important, but in order for a reader of fantasy to be entirely swept up by a world, and therefore imagine the fantastical events and happenings in the novel, some which are extraordinary in White Pines, the user needs to fully believe in the world. You do that by exploring and revealing the mythology, often in great detail; the why and how of magic, the long history of the folklore, the chronicles of the monsters within the world. In White Pines, it felt as if this aspect had only been scratched on the surface in favour of storytelling.
This makes for a lighter, speedier read, albeit all immaculately written, which is great fun and, in many ways, an astute move by Amor, who has an excellent understanding of the indy-writing community and what readers want. Readers will devour this novel in a few sittings and feel thoroughly entertained. However, I cannot help but feel how much more affecting and, chiefly, believable (and therefore brilliant) her novel would have been had she spent more time introducing us to the precise rituals, histories, folklore and the magic which encompass her world. Fantasy novels, of which White Pines firmly is, are there to take readers away from their own dreary lives and cast them into lives of wonder and magic. When fantasy novels work, the user truly believes in the monsters and magic presented to them on the page. When this happens, this truly is magic. When it doesn’t, it feels disjointed and disloyal. I’m not convinced Amor’s ambition to write this particular fantasy romp about a cottage beside a magical island gave her the desire to expand the word count, timeframe and cost to create something far bigger and more affecting.
In a nutshell, White Pines is a story which could fill a thousand-pages with its breadth of fantasy, wonder and world-building, and under Amor’s skilled hand I’m sure never feel laboured or outstay its welcome. There are wonderful set pieces and scenes, ably supported by sharp snappy dialogue. But the emotion hinted at through her wonderful writing never lingered within me because I hadn’t invested in her world’s mythology because she hadn’t to the degree I wanted her to either.
This might sound like a criticism, and I suppose in a way it is, but the criticism comes from the fact that I so loved the writing I wanted to believe the fantasy it was trying to create. I wanted to immerse myself fully in Amor’s fantasy but actually found White Pines was quite a shallow pool.
White Pines is a wonderful short novel, that many people should read and rightly love. I would love for her to continue to create these fantasy worlds, but in the future expand the breadth and depth of them, along with the word count, going deeper and for longer into the mythology of her creation. She has more than enough talent and ambition if she chooses to do so. Because, by doing so, her novels will become as magical and affecting as those of Tolkien, Eddings and Ursula Le Guin (yes, really), and her next epic book may well become her own version of Petty’s Wildflowers.
A woman, returning to her roots. A town, built on sacred land. A secret, cloaked in tradition and lore.
Welcome to White Pines. Don’t get too comfortable.
Tarn Richardson was brought up a fan of fantasy and horror, in a remote house, rumoured to be haunted, near Taunton, Somerset. He is the author of THE DARKEST HAND series, published by Duckworth Overlook in 2015-2017 and republished by RedDoor in 2019. Comprising of THE DAMNED, THE FALLEN, THE RISEN, and free eBook prequel THE HUNTED, the books tell the epic story of Inquisitor Poldek Tacit, battling the forces of evil to the backdrop of World War One. He has also written the novels, RIPPED, and THE VILLAGE IN THE WOODS, to be published in 2020 and 2021. He lives near Salisbury with this wife, the portraiture artist Caroline Richardson, and their two sons.
Official Website www.tarnrichardson.co.uk