The Trees by Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury, March 2016) has a premise which sounds absolutely fascinating: to quote NetGalley’s synopsis, “the forest burst full-grown out of the earth, in booming uppercuts of trunks and bludgeoning branches. It rammed through roads alike, shattering bricks and exploding glass. 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.” Between this summary and the amazing cover, I was excited about reading this. The opening chapter didn’t let me down; Shaw builds a palpable sense of creepiness and foreboding with the odd descriptions of nature slowly asserting its power:
Walking home, he marvelled at how many worms had crawled up from the earth that evening. Scores upon scores of them, squirming in the flowerbeds. There were millipedes and woodlice too, and a legion of slugs pulsing across the road. A car rushed past, its headlamps filling every raindrop yellow, and when it was gone there were crushed trails of slime everywhere.
The violence with which the invasion of the trees is described is quite terrifying; Shaw uses words like “bludgeoning,” “shattering,” “exploding” and “rammed” to depict the onslaught, and there is something genuinely unsettling about considering this kind of attack being launched by something we see every day and rely on for survival. In this way, the novel poses interesting questions about humanity’s treatment of the natural world, by suggesting what the effects would be if nature fought back; something as simple as loads of trees growing could, as we see here, completely destroy civilisation.
The Trees, understandably based on this weird premise, is almost fairy tale-like at times, with elements of horror. Shaw wisely begins with just a couple of characters before expanding the cast list as the original figures set off on a journey to find their respective loved ones. There are a few real shocks and the overall mood is unsettling.
The problem for me was that the story never seemed believable. Firstly, I was crying out for an explanation: just a short paragraph explaining how and why the catastrophic events of the opening had transpired. Sadly, no such explanation was forthcoming. I also found myself cringing at the dialogue, which too many times relied on cliche. As I’ve mentioned, The Trees asks insightful questions about technology and the impact of humans on the natural world; the problem is that much of this comes from Hannah, who has a bizarrely chirpy approach to the fact that the world has basically been destroyed by trees. I am fine with her really liking trees and being quite excited about the opportunity to start afresh, but I felt like she hadn’t quite grasped the severity of the situation (i.e. everybody in the country was suddenly homeless and there was no electricity).
The Trees seemed to me like it really wanted to be Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which deals in a similarly post-apocalyptic landscape, following a motley band of travellers, even using the redemptive power of Shakespeare to show that humanity does still exist. The thing is that Station Eleven just did all these things more effectively and more convincingly.
The Trees does have a very dramatic climax, with different threads of the story coming together in a memorable way, and this ending is appropriately strange for a novel with such a unique opening. It is an interesting read, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.