You can argue all you want about the timeless value of literature, but surely at least some of it is seasonal. This year the Australian summer was particularly late, which makes it feel earned, and with this comes the sense that a good beach read is due, if one can feel they’re owed anything by literature. The Trees by Ali Shaw is likely not a universal beach read, owing to the oddness of its premise and its execution too. But on a blistering day at the end of a long year, on a quiet beach, with my overheated phone turned off and a cold drink in my hand, I can report that this novel worked unusual charms on me and that these results may be reproduced for you.
Several people in England are woken in the middle of the night to find that trees of all kinds have sprouted forcefully through their town, turning possibly the whole world into a thriving forest, with all the requisite wonder and all the requisite gore (a poor soul named Mrs Howell has been “skewered” by page 12). Actually, gory vegetational beach reads are not at all unheard of – see The Day of the Triffids, or The Ruins by Scott Smith. But while The Trees sometimes employs its premise to deliver scares and shocks, it also spends considerable time exploring the ontological possibilities of this new, forested world. It gets deep and dark.
Is it an ecological revenge story, a post-apocalyptic adventure, or a journey into its protagonists’ pasts, fears, needs and hearts? Wonderfully, it’s all and none, and for the first few hundred pages, it’s impossible to tell exactly where it will go, leaving you stunned by the freewheeling nature of the plot and in love with its characters. There’s midlife slacker Adrien, the serious and dreamy Hannah and her son Seb, and Seb’s love interest Hiroko, and all of them are unusually sensible, friendly and mature.
It resolves in a long sequence that’s a little more familiar from other books about building new communities in a drastically altered world. But even then, it picks at the edges of its premise – with the trees come wolves and twig-like creatures (“whisperers”). Their meaning is occasionally obscure.
The Trees is often fun and just as often disturbing, even abstract. You might be lying on a towel, but it will keep you on your toes. CR
Bloomsbury, 496pp, $19.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 28, 2017 as "Ali Shaw, The Trees". Subscribe here.