Nineteen years ago, Daniel Robbin was found guilty of murdering fifteen-year-old Shep Stanley, and sentenced to death. Now, the execution date is set. The Crying Tree is written in two strands of the same plot: following Shep's bereaved family over the agonising years as they try to find closure to their grief and get on with their lives, and prison Superintendent Tab Mason, the man in charge of carrying out the sentence.
I was expecting this book to fit firmly into the category of Crime Novel, and reading the synopsis on the back of the book I found myself thinking of a John Grisham novel. I bought this book in a two-for-one offer on Richard and Judy's Book Club, but to be honest, I expected it to be a little bit dry, with lots of legalese and moral philosophising. In fact, this book reminded me more of a Jodi Picoult novel, exploring serious issues but with characters one can really feel for, and a plot full of surprises and twists.
The bulk of the book is from the perspective of Irene, Shep's bereaved mother, and to a lesser degree her husband Nate and daughter Bliss, as the family tries to put the past behind them and get on with life. A major theme of the work is the lines that should not be crossed, and yet how easy it can be to step over: the line between wanting justice and wanting revenge, between offender and victim, prisoner and guard. Rakha explores how hatred and forgiveness affect both giver and receiver, and leads us to question whether in fact some lines should be crossed. I would find myself supporting one character in an argument, but at the same time understanding exactly where their opponent was coming from.
Interestingly I found the condemned Daniel Robbin to be the most intriguing character, about whom I wanted to find out more. This could stem from a conversation I recently had with a friend whose mother works in a prison, about how "When a felon's not engaged in his employment, (his employment)" he can seem quite ordinary, like anyone else. Throughout the book, Robbin is a rather enigmatic figure, and I found myself wondering, could he really be guilty? He seemed so placid and sane that I thought it impossible that he could shoot dead a teenager in cold blood. Yet, if he was innocent, why did he not appeal the case? Maybe his outer calmness was the mask of a disturbed mind. I sensed early on that there must be more to Daniel than met the eye, and that, more than anything else, is what kept me turning the pages, in a way that would no doubt appal the Stanley family. After all, this man killed their son. Surely we shouldn't be trying to understand what makes him tick?