This book might win the most striking cover award this year: the stunning autumnal russets and reds are gorgeous!
But you know what they say about judging books by their covers?
As a parent and as a teacher, we trot out that truism time and again but on what else are you going to judge a book? Well, the author is one other way and Ali Shaw was the author of The Girl With Glass Feet in 2010 and that was a book which has stayed with me hauntingly. The Trees looks like a heftier and heavier novel than that one – and I suppose length is as reliable a way of judging a book as any other – coming in at about 500 pages.
Just as with The Girl With Glass Feet, Ali Shaw’s The Trees inhabits the boundary between mythology and the mundane, between the fantastical and the real, between the magical and the ordinary. It is, I suppose, a magic realist novel although there is very little magic as such in it. A mythological realist novel perhaps. And the mythology does feel deliciously British: forests and trees and a return of the primal woodlands over which mankind has built and paved and lived. And a very abrupt and violent return of the forests:
Then the trees came.
The forest burst full-grown out of the earth, in booming uppercuts of trunks and bludgeoning branches. It rammed through roads and houses alike, shattering bricks and exploding glass. It sounded like a thousand trains derailing at once, squealings and jarrings and bucklings all lost beneath the thunderclaps of broken concrete and the cacophony of a billion hissing leaves. Up surged the tree trunks, up in a storm of foliage and lashing twigs that spread and spread and then, at a great height, stopped.
In the blink of an eye, the world had changed. There came an elastic aftershock of creaks and groans and then, softly softly, a chinking shower of rubbled cement.
Branches stilled amid the wreckage they had made. Leaves calmed and trunks stood serene. Where, not a minute before, a suburb had lain, there was now only woodland standing amid ruins. Some of the trees were flickeringly lit by the strobe of dying electricity, others by the fires of vehicles that had burst into flames. The rest stood in darkness, their canopy a gibbet world hung with all the things they’d killed and mangled as they came.
The violence is, to be honest, rather muted and mainly directed at the fabric of humanity’s world rather than the humans in it. Reference is made to deaths and it’s usually fleeting; very few deaths are actually shown in any detail.
It’s almost as if the novel arose from one of the many what if writing prompts that float around the internet. The how and the why and details of the trees’ appearance is almost irrelevant; how people deal with their appearance matters. And Shaw chooses a small and discreet group of travellers: Adrien, a self-loathing cowardly English Teacher (and a small part of me wrankles at that choice of career for our non-hero); Hannah, a nature-loving mother and Seb, her tech-savvy son; and Hiroko, an enigmatic Japanese girl with a knack for using a slingshot.
Adrien, Hannah and Seb leave their devastated home town and trek through the forest, meeting Hiroko along the way, as well as wolves, endangered mushrooms and kirin, a mythical creature which seemed partly unicorn and partly a woolly rhino. As well as “whisperers”, tiny creatures made from leaves and twigs and moss which seem to haunt the forest and Adrien in particular. And something darker that lurks in the heart of the forest too.
Like many post-apocalyptic novels, the real threat to our main characters is from the other humans which they encounter rather than the wolves of the forest. In many ways, it feels a lot like The Walking Dead in parts: the forest is often just the backdrop, the people are the true horrors. How do you react when every social, societal and legal structure disappears overnight? Do you forge new bonds or do you reforge yourself and, if so, in whose image? What governs your behaviour when there is no judge but yourself?
Much of what I loved about The Girl With Glass Feet was the lyricism of Shaw’s language and there was less of that here. There was certainly a power to the language, especially in the more surreal vision that Adrien has of the earth and its creatures. But perhaps the quest structure, the driving narrative of the journey – in this case to reunite Adrien with his wife in Ireland – gave less opportunity for it. And I missed that and the intimacy of The Girl… The Trees has, by its nature, a global dimension which perhaps distracted a little from the character-driven prose of that earlier, first book. I liked the characters in general, although Adrien was a little tiresome and I wasn’t really convinced by his journey and Hiroko seemed a little two dimensionally inscrutable.
However, I am grumbling and nit-picking and I know it. It’s what us self-loathing English teachers do. This is a grand book and, despite the weighty length, a rapid read with a good pace. In fact, the modulation of chapter length was particularly effective.
But, no, a good cracking novel, touching on some of the mythological and fairy tale elements that I love.
Certainly good enough for me to be on the look out for the intervening book, The Man Who Rained.
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