February 26, 2012


by Mary Vensel White
Authonomy, Kindle Edition

Review by J. S. Colley

I purchased The Qualities of Wood, in part, because it has the distinction of being the first book published by Authonomy, the new digital imprint of HarperCollins. Being an on-and-off-again active member of the imprint's online community, I was interested to see how this novel stacked up. I think the publisher made a good choice.

The story is about a couple given the task of preparing the husband's deceased grandmother's house for sale. The husband precedes his wife so he can work on his next mystery novel. She finishes out the last few weeks at her job and then joins him.

As soon as the wife, Vivian, steps off the plane, the author begins to create a subtle feeling of tension. Vivian doesn't recognize her husband and walks right by him. Shortly after they arrive, she discovers that a young girl was recently found dead in the woods behind the house. The police deemed the girl’s death an accident, but Vivian is drawn to the woods and can’t seem to shake off her curiosity about the incident. 

The story is told in Vivian's point of view, and we watch as her woman's intuition drives her to question her relationships, both old and new. But it isn't only her intuition that has unsettled her. Vivian is an artist at heart; she notices things that other people might not. She pays attention to detail. As the dirt road in front of the house is being paved and the black asphalt comes closer and closer to the house, so the tension builds.

Vivian proceeds to take on the arduous task of preparing the house for sale, while her husband stays locked away in his writing room. Soon, Vivian becomes resentful of the room, where her husband seems guarded and secretive. Other characters are introduced, and Vivian must sort out her relationship with all of them. She observes them, taking in details. Are her assumptions about them correct? She struggles to reconcile what she witnesses with what is the truth.

What I like most about this book is how the author evokes and sustains a mood. The author manages this by both the rhythm of her sentences and her words. I like reading atmospheric novels. If done well, the atmosphere can almost put the plot in second place. But, in this novel, we don’t have to choose; it does both well.

There is one scene where Vivian cleans blood out of the freezer: The puddle brightened as it was moistened, its volume augmented by the water. The liquid seeped into the corners and traveled fast…. There are similar scenes throughout, strategically placed to enhance the underlying tension.

There is another scene when Vivian’s sister-in-law, Dot, is opening herself up to Vivian in a personal way and, when Vivian hugs her, she notices Dot’s bra strap showing beneath her thin blouse, emphasizing the fact that she is “exposing” herself to Vivian. It is these little details that make this book interesting.

Even though there is an underlying mystery, as I stated above, this story is ultimately about relationships, about how perception (or perspective, in art) changes what we see, and ultimate feel, about an object, event, or person.

The only criticism I might have is that I found it hard to picture the layout of the house; it took me out of the story at times, but only briefly. Since the house is such an integral part of the story, I think it is important to give the reader a reliable mental image of it. I’m the type of reader who needs a simple, but concise, description of the surrounds. When they don’t jibe, then it throws me. 

A comparison has been made between Mary Vensel White and Anne Tyler, and I agree with this assessment. It would not surprise me if Vensel White became an award-winning author one day.

I will definitely take a look at the next novel written by this author.

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