Reviewed by Annabel
Thank goodness that Ali Shaw’s novels are impossible to categorise. They are contemporary dramas with transformation at their heart, not out and out fantasies, but full of fantastical elements. When I heard him talk after his debut, The Girl with Glass Feet, was published, he explained how the magic in his books is a natural extension of the character’s lives; just as in Kafka’s Metamorphosis in which a bureaucrat wakes up transformed into an insect and essentially carries on with his life! His advice then was: to be careful with magic, to work out rules for incorporating it, to consider up and down sides, and to keep it natural – and he is still following his own rules.
Thus The Girl with Glass Feet has a Hans Christian Andersen style of sadness to it as Ida gradually turns to glass just as Milo falls in love with her. The Man Who Rained draws from folklore and more elemental transmutations of emotion into weather as Finn and Elsa try to find a way to live together.
The Trees, (with its gorgeous embossed cover), imagines the force of nature fighting back, rising up against a polluted, over-developed world, and plunging its survivors back into the dark ages.
It starts on a normal day for Adrien Thomas, forty-four, a man in the middle of a mid-life crisis. Having given up his career as a teacher at his wife’s urging to find a new direction, he is still directionless and his marriage is floundering. Meanwhile, his wife, Michelle, is in Ireland on business, so Adrien is at home surviving on a diet of beer, Chinese takeaway and TV westerns. That night, while Adrien snores, the trees come…
The forest burst full-grown out of the earth, in booming upper-cuts 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.
Adrien awakes in this strange new world, and while missing Michelle, he is thankful to be alive. But going out he finds “a gibbet world hung with all the things they’d killed and mangled as they came.” Bodies dangle with crows pecking at them, house cats tucking in too with “the bells on their collars tinkling as they ate.” He goes through some school grounds, “the trees were full of tiny chairs.” The streets are left full of horrors as nature has started to reclaim them.
He meets Hannah, a “crazy hippy” gardener, who is trying to replant an ancient yew uprooted by the new growth. He tells her that “maybe there’s not enough tree in it any more.” Although they are complete opposites, they strike up a friendship and Adrien will join Hannah and her teenaged son, Seb, to seek out her forester brother who lives westwards – in Michelle’s direction. Along the way, they meet Hiroko, a displaced and rather cool Japanese teenager, who just happens to be handy with a slingshot and able to skin a rabbit if needed; it is inevitable that she and Seb will get close.
The lengthy travels of this unlikely quartet become a quest. Yes, each of them has to go on their own internal journey, to confront their own demons to stay sane – but it couldn’t be otherwise. They’re also forced to find new depths of physical and mental energy in order to survive and to understand their place.
It’s not all grim, either. For instance, there was one lovely moment when Seb tosses away the talisman that had hung around his neck, the memory stick containing his website, realising that its time has gone, freeing him to think about the future.
As in all ‘brave new world’ novels, (there is definitely a Shakespearean vibe to Shaw’s forests), only the fittest survive. There will always be those who take advantage of others, whether on the road, or off it building their little empires. The quartet have some truly scary run-ins that are reminiscent of many a crime thriller; the confrontation as the novel reaches its climax is particularly gruesome.
But what about the magic? I hear you ask…
“Mother Nature is a psychopath,” he’d told Michelle, “and I won’t spend my weekends on my hands and knees, painting her toenails.”
So thought Adrien, when Michelle had tried to get him gardening. He’s right too in a way. Now, there is little point in trying to tame such a wild, elemental force.
This is where earth magic takes over as strange beasts appear in the forests – chimerical creatures resembling a unicorn which Hiroko calls Kirin from Japanese myths. Then there are the ‘whisperers’, so-called “because of the noise they make.” They are rustling little sprite-like bodies formed from twigs, roots and leaves, (and some of Shaw’s drawings of them appear between sections of the book, see right). Like the toys in Toy Story, whenever anyone looks at them they become inanimate, merging back into the forest floor. Adrien, our everyman bloke, however, is one of the few permitted to see them, which will make the trajectory of his story arc different to the others.
Once again, Shaw sets his rules for this earth magic and abides by them. It is interesting that he never invests nature with a gender, leaving us in no doubt that nature is an elemental force that flows through living things just as gravity keeps us earthbound. It is Adrien who mentions ‘Mother Nature’, and even the most familiar nature goddess ‘Flora’ is not referenced either. Images akin to the Green Man of English folklore do abound but again are not defined as male or female, just of nature – like these carvings in a church where the travellers take a break:
Their mouths hung open either to spew out more foliage or swallow it up. One puckish face had oak leaves for eyebrows and a chin of ivy. Another had cheekbones of holly and flat, stemmed lips. There was one with forget-me-not eyes and flowering whiskers.
If I have one small quibble, it would be that some of the dialogue is a little ordinary, but, it comes from the mouths of ordinary folk and is grounding. This is, however, totally eclipsed by Shaw’s imagination and the nature description in his storytelling, which is extraordinary. This weird and dark fantastic tale is utterly gripping. Although Shaw wrote it with the European forests of Grimms’ fairytales and medieval romances in mind, as a metaphor for the deleterious effects of deforestation and environmental damage to our forests which are the lungs of the world, it couldn’t be more timely.
P.S. If you get the chance to hear Ali talk about his books, he is one of the best author speakers I have heard (three times now), totally at home talking about all the influences behind his novels and more.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Ali Shaw, The Trees, (Bloomsbury, 2016). 9781408862247, 496pp., hardback.
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