American Sycamore

Karen Fielding
Publication Date: 
Monday, March 17, 2014
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Gold Medal Winner: Best Regional Fiction, Independent Publisher Award 2015


The lives of congenial American fly-fisherman Billy and his younger sister Alice meander alongside the Susquehanna River in this offbeat coming-of-age novel of death, madness, and fishing by debut author Karen Fielding.

What starts out as a frolic of losers and drifters along the American riverscape flows into something more sinister when twelve-year-old Billy Sycamore encounters a stranger in the woods, while Alice is left to deal with the fall-out.

In the spirit of Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America and idiosyncratic like a George Saunders story, American Sycamore is a funny and fractious narrative about growing up in a small town in northeast America, with not a lot to do, but a whole lot to worry about.

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Review From Shiny New Books

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It is lovely to be able to heartily recommend a début novel published by a smaller independent publisher – American Sycamore is exactly that and it deserves a wide readership. Set in the 1970s, it’s a coming of age story of two siblings, Alice and Billy Sycamore who grow up in a small town by the Susquehanna River in north-eastern USA. Billy is two years older than Alice. He is a keen fly-fisherman and spends a most of his time on the river, very at home with nature, fishing … The Terry twins, identical fair-haired sisters who would grow into the well-earned titles ‘Herpes I’ and ‘Herpes II’, liked to hang out by the river. […] They did all of this fishing fabrication to impress Billy because Billy was most handsome: eyes the colour of river algae, and black lashes like the long, evening shadows in a mountain stream. His dusky blond hair grew into a wild curly haze. He had a smile that was infectious but uneven; when he turned fourteen he removed his braces with a wrench. The moment I read the hilarious description of the Terry twins on page 13, I knew I was going to get on with this book, and especially its narrator, Alice. Alice is two years younger than Billy and obviously adores him. We get the feel that Billy was popular, in a bit of a Bart Simpson way, but events later in the decade will turn that love of adventure and pranking into something altogether darker. First we have some growing up to do. Living by the banks of the river, flooding is always a possibility, but it can be stormy too and Alice is scared stiff of lightning in the dark. Billy loves it. ‘He liked the dark. He thought about the electric chair.’ – an artefact that becomes something of a fixation for Billy. Their mother is also paranoid about storms, anxious that their father returns home she rings the hospital where he works – again. After several minutes she’d return to the table looking crazier than before. She was beautiful, our mother; an extrovert yet flammable, a walking can of gasoline just waiting for a match. Some of the descriptions of the characters in this book are so beautifully constructed – if that of the twins made me laugh, the description above of their mother made me gasp a little. Another, of some new neighbours totally encapsulates their character in just one sentence: ‘The Stanleys were the sort of people who had commissioned an oil painting of their dog.’ Ain’t it just so. Then one day when Billy is twelve, he is off fishing on his own, and meets a stranger in the woods. What happens during this encounter will be the trigger to the start of mental illness and a long and tragic decline for Billy through his teenage years. You know through Alice’s memories that he’s always been eccentric, but this damages him and he comes out of the woods a different young man. Over the next years Billy is in and out of hospital, unsuccessfully doing a series of dead-end jobs, off drinking with Joseph Lightfoot, a drifter and descendant of the Iroquois Indians who first lived in the area; treading that borderline between sanity and madness. We wonder what really happened that day on the riverbank. Who was the stranger? Alice takes the brunt of it all, looking after Billy and her family, making the necessary excuses, but always wondering too, was what Billy thinks happened real? Eventually she’ll get away to work in New York, but her heart too is always back on the Susquehanna River. The sense of place just oozes out of this novel, flowing gently like the river. The river and its environs seem so real, as does Alice and Billy’s lives – Billy however, goes against the current, fighting it like the fish swimming upstream. I was enthralled by the rhythms in Fielding’s writing of this offbeat tale. There is a somewhat dreamlike quality to her prose, which is also studded with humour. The chapters are short, almost vignettes, as they jump back and forwards a little, but this meandering in time intrigued rather than irritated. Fielding is an American living in London, and this book is published by Seren Books, a Welsh publisher whose series of novels New tales from the Mabinogion I am very much an admirer of. The press release likened this book to Richard Brautigan via George Saunders; I don’t have enough experience of either of those authors to concur fully, but I like the allusion and I’d add a good dash of Alice Hoffman with a little Anne Tyler into the mix too. American Sycamore is a hauntingly effective first novel – I loved it.

Annabell Gaskell – Shiny New Books

13/05/2014 - 10:32
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Review from Our Book Reviews Online

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Growing up by the Susquehanna river in rural Pennsylvania, Billy Sycamore was always drawn to it; canoeing, trading tales with the Native Americans he met on its banks but above all - fishing. It seems like an idyllic world - and it mainly is till one day, when he's 12, out fishing alone, he encounters a stranger and something dreadful happens to him which ultimately changes his life. Although he won't share the details with them, his family all too easily spot its impact and the change in Billy as he descends into increasing mental instability.

To be honest, I wasn't very attracted by this book when it arrived for review. Probably due to having watched too many 'river' based movies, I sort of imagined it to be a teenage mash-up of Deliverance, The River of No Return and The River Wild with too much fishing! - fortunately it was nothing of that kind! When I eventually picked it up, I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.
American Sycamore is a quirky coming of age tale set in a wild landscape of forests and river. Set in a small town peopled by the eccentric, weird and downright crazies, it's moving and funny by turns, and twisting and turning like a whodunnit. The story is narrated by Billy's younger sister Alice, in an off-beat, chatty style as she struggles to understand what has happened to her brother but nonetheless loving him through all his 'treatments' and hospitalisations.
I'm not sure whether to label this as teen, YA or adult but it would probably be enjoyed by all.

06/05/2014 - 14:11
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Review from the Compulsive Reader

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Alice Sycamore lives in a small town by the banks of Susquehanna river. You meet the faces of this town, while Alice is telling her short stories from the past, remembering different situations she and her brother came across. American Sycamore is a book that seems to have no connection to time, but instead, focuses on one particular place. Alice’s manner of speech and perspective reminds me of The Stranger by Albert Camus. Only in this case, it is not all about her and her feelings, but about her older brother, who is strangely connected to the people, and the place of her origin. Each time Alice mentions her brother, we see how much of a mystery he is to her:

His whole life was chaos except when you opened up his tackle box. I used to slip into his bedroom just to have a look around and fiddle inside the box with its three retractable tiers, shiny lures, and plastic beads with painted eyes and wearing tiny grass skirts.

Every chapter presents a different episode, revealing a little more to the reader. American Sycamore is like a map, where you are adding new houses and landmarks by reading new stories. They are all connected in a chaotic way, the same way a human life and every day in it is a summing up of experience.

You see the past, the present, and the future of Alice, her awkward decisions and minor rebellion, all presented as a background to her brother Billy’s story and complex characterization. Billy remains a dark secret. In an American town, very close to its Indian roots, Billy Sycamore is a person of this land: he knows it and he owns it. He is the American Sycamore, like a tree grown into the bank of Susquehanna, close to the river and nature. He is also suffering from several disorders, and that makes his mind even more mysterious, because, unless we understand him, we think he is just insane: “One thing Billy used to say about his hallucinatory mind was: Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

American Sycamore is as intimate as a chat with a friend or a reminiscence on a summer evening in a big comfortable armchair on the front porch. While reading, you physically sense the smell of the river, and the insects. You feel the place. You want to hold this book, carry it around to accidentally open, and read new stories: “There are times in life when it is safe to remember.”

Despite the intensity, American Sycamore is not dark. It promises a lot of funny moments to everyone brave enough to jump into it. Karen Fielding makes sure you have an equal proportion of fun and reflection.

Polly Kaledin

03/03/2014 - 12:44