"The Silver Bough" is a wonderfully beguiling and deeply satisfying novel that defies easy categorisation. Lisa Tuttle is a renowned author of fantasy, science fiction and horror novels, and given its title, which pays homage to a classic collection of Scottish folklore, we approached this book with the expectation of finding something set squarely within the fantasy/folklore arena.
The book is far, far more than that. Three central female characters all women, all from the United States, separately find themselves in Appleton, a small town near the end of a long peninsula in Argyll, on Scotland's west coast. It takes no great geographer to deduce that Appleton is very closely based on Campbeltown, and it is no surprise to find that although originally coming from Texas, Lisa Tuttle lives in Argyll and clearly knows her central location extremely well.
There are differences between Appleton and Campbeltown, carefully constructed to allow the plot to develop and give substance to an intriguing history. Critically, Appleton is on the Apple, a headland prevented from becoming an island by a narrow neck of land and a single vertiginous road. When this road is cut by a landslide the only access becomes by air or sea. Appleton also differs from Campbeltown in being traditionally known for its cider, made from locally produced apples, rather than the latter's Scotch whisky. And it soon becomes clear that the story of the area's relationship with its apple orchards, which have all but disappeared since 1950, is central to understanding the unfolding events. Because once the road to the Apple is cut, the ordinary, recognisable, predictable and rational world we see through the eyes of the three main characters, and through those of other more minor characters, begins to unravel, almost imperceptibly at first, and then with increasing pace. Suddenly the real people of Appleton find themselves confronted by and having to accept the increasingly strange world they see around them, a world in which elements of folklore appear to be awakening from the very landscape itself.
And all the while, we are drawn into the characters of young visitor Ashley, librarian Kathleen, and widow (and apple grower) Nell. What do they really want from their lives, and what roles are they playing in the story of Appleton and the events that are unfolding around them? And how will their destinies change as a result? This is a beautifully crafted novel that leads you seamlessly from the real world into the otherworld, and then... Suffice it to say that this is a book whose ending does not disappoint: and one we'd wholeheartedly recommend to anyone interested in really good fiction about Scotland.