Into the Trees by Robert Williams

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Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

Imagine a house in the middle of the forest, somewhere you feel safe, at home; somewhere to hide away perhaps?  What springs to mind? One such place I instantly thought of was the seven dwarves’ cottage in Snow White. Then I thought of the gingerbread cottage in Hansel and Gretel – except that wasn’t exactly a safe house until they’d disposed of the wicked witch.

I hasten to add that Into the Trees is no fairy-tale. It is a thoroughly contemporary novel, not even a reworking of a fairy-tale and yet, you can’t help thinking of them all the time when reading it. Forests in themselves are potent symbols of nature, spirits and earth-magic, remember the forest of Fangorn, home of the Ents, and Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest in Lord of the Rings for instance. Add a house in a clearing and you’re back in Grimm territory, or is it more like the Cullen’s modern glass sanctuary in the Twilight film? Whichever, you know that something bad happened when someone came knocking at the door looking for Snow White …

They came through the trees on a Sunday evening. Four men in petrol-blue overalls, balaclavas covering their heads. They stepped out from the forest and onto the narrow road in front of them. The house they approached was a barn conversion in a secluded corner of Bleasdale Forest, a large detached building of thick stone and wood deep in the Abbestead countryside. The men crossed the road, strode up the short drive and knocked on the door as politely as a visiting friend.

Uh oh!  The very first paragraph of this novel’s prologue is enough to strike fear into the heart of any reader. The Norton family’s home is invaded – but we won’t return to this scene until later in the book.  First, we need to find out why a family would want to live in this isolated location in the first place; so, let us go back eight years …

I was lucky with my daughter. When she was a baby, she slept through from a very early age – but not all parents have such good fortune.  Ann and Thomas Norton are two such, and their daughter Harriet is a crier not a sleeper. ‘It was a sound to make animals turn and run, a noise to terrify parents. And it would last for hours.’  They try everything to no avail and Thomas takes to driving for hours with a wailing Harriet in the back seat so his wife can get an hour or two’s kip.

One night, he drives into the forest and Harriet goes quiet, and sleeps.  The answer, once his wife is also convinced is to move from Maltham, the small town in Lancashire where they live into the forest, a fair drive up towards the Lake District.  They find a barn to convert and settle into their new home.  Harriet sleeps.

Thomas loves returning to the forest after a hard day’s work in town. Ann, though is not quite as at home there – it’s difficult being so isolated, and even though she’d helped design the house …

 ‘…it felt like she was on holiday, a wet afternoon in a rented holiday home, miles from the nearest town, a cosy village not too far away, ideal for bike rides, walks and picnics in the summer. Once that thought embedded itself in her head she was unable to shift it. Life was one long holiday.’

The forest is not so empty though, there is a man who roams at night.  Unable to sleep, Raymond, a casual worker at the nearby farm walks.  Raymond is strong, a gentle giant of a man, unaccustomed to socialising and having friends. A man of few words, he lives on his own in a caravan at the farm while working and alone again in his inherited tumbledown terrace in town when not. Thomas and Raymond strike up an awkward friendship and before long Raymond starts to come out of his shell with the Nortons, becoming a protective family mascot and frequent presence at the house in the woods.

Which brings us back to the prologue and the events of that night, on which I won’t elaborate further save to say that the consequences will affect them all profoundly and in totally opposite ways.  It will strengthen Ann and weaken Thomas and Raymond will find himself too.  But I can’t tell you if there will be a happy ending to this modern fairy-tale…

Raymond was a lovely character, becoming the glue that holds the family together. His own predicament as a casual farmworker also allows comment about the precarious nature of being on a small farm in this economic climate. It was interesting that he changed from being the guardian of the forest – a bigger and more quiet kind of Tom Bombadil if you like, to being guardian of the family and a true friend in need.

I loved the contrasts that Williams brought to his portrayal of the forest – a safe sanctuary one moment, a dangerous and lonely wild place the next. It gave this family drama such an air of unease that although the broad lines of what was going to happen that night were clear from the outset, you weren’t sure of how everyone would react at all.

This novel is a suspenseful tale of great atmosphere, and even greater emotions. I enjoyed it very much and will be looking out for Williams’ previous two novels as well as waiting for his next.

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Robert Williams, Into The Trees (Faber, 2014) hardback, 353 pages.

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