The COVID-19 Pandemic marked a period of loss for so many. But while losses directly attributed to COVID made up a huge part of this, other sorts of losses did not stop. When Hollie Starling’s father committed suicide months into the UK lockdown, his surviving loved ones began the grieving journey, one that is at once universal and highly individual. On furlough from her job and at a loss of how to cope with the unexpected hole in her life, Starling dove into learning all she could about death through the lens of folklore from around the world.
The Bleeding Tree, part memoir, part folkloric study, is interspersed with short stories inspired by some of the diverse beliefs and lore Starling encountered along the way. While telling her father’s story and her own, the author examines death from every angle she can find: rituals of mourning, memorials, remembering, body disposal, society’s treatment of survivors, and more. Relentless in her quest to make sense of her pain, Starling investigates grieving, ghosts, hallucinations, trauma, and the power of story. She also digs in to the factors influencing suicide such as mental health, stigma, austerity, and class. From the seaside memorial “Buck Beck Beach Bench” to the mysterious Japanese “Sea of Trees” to the last Sin-eater of the parish of Ratlinghope, her death lore discoveries are varied and fascinating. I loved the incorporation of several fairy tales, especially one featuring Death as a character, which is one of my favorite kinds. The language of The Bleeding Tree is beautiful, lyrical, and really drew me in. With a voice that is sensitive, curious, angry, self-deprecating, and funny, Starling is the perfect psychopomp to accompany anyone wishing to examine the ways we grieve.
Lissa Sloan is the author of Glass and Feathers, a novel that tells the story of Cinderella after the “happily ever after.” The Enchanted Press will publish it next February.