[I'm not sure how I came to be reading this novella — I think I had the author mixed up with someone else. It turns out: I had not read anything by Victor Lavalle previously. But I will be sure to look up more of his books now.]
The story starts on Loochie's 12th birthday, and her best friend can't make the party because she's dying of cancer. (Had I known about this, I probably would not have picked up this book.) When Sunny gets out of the hospital, the girls plan a crazy afternoon to make up for lost time.
She was trembling again. She was used to climbing fire escapes, but hadn't ever scaled a tree. It didn't help that this was an insane tree in an insane woods in an insane park that had appeared — insanely — in this apartment.
These trees weren't at all like the ones she'd seen on trips to the Queens Botanical Garden or Flushing Meadows Park. These trees were like their demented cousins. They were so tall they seemed to run as high as her entire apartment building. Sixty feet straight up, that big. Their trunks were misshapen, bubbling out here and there in thick knots, and their outer barks gray and ashen, as if burned. In places the bark showed great tears and the inner bark was sickly white, the color of bones. She didn't want to climb this tree. She didn't even want to touch it. But then she heard the calls out in the meadow once again and she had no choice. She reached for the lowest branch of the nearest tree and climbed.
It's amazing what a person can do when her life depends on it.
That afternoon is a rollercoaster of a metaphor that veers off into unforeseen directions. Yes, Lucretia must come to terms with losing her best friend. But there's no maudlin sentimentality here. This is a horror story, with creatures lurking in shadows and worlds turned upside down. And then there's the ending, which churns everything over again.
I might compare it to Henry James's Turn of the Screw insofar as it's not clear whether events are occuring in an objective reality or inside someone's head, but Lucretia is decidedly modern and urban in feel. Also it's a little like Neil Gaiman's Coraline. At least, I felt a similar frisson reading Lucretia.
Your sense of creepiness may vary, but I highly recommend this story.