first of all, we need to take a moment to do some good old-fashioned cover-drooling:
happily, this book lives up to how stunning its cover is.
at nearly 500 pages, it’s a bit formidable, but once it gets going, it’s such an engrossing read, you don’t even feel like you’re reading a two-inch thick book – you’re completely transported into its world, even though it’s a world you won’t want to visit.
unfortunately, it’s our world, with some devastating refurbishments. it’s one of the more unusual apocalypse scenarios i’ve read: one night, when people are tucked safely in their homes, sleeping snugly in their beds, the trees come. shooting up from beneath the ground, all at once, fully-formed trees come crashing up, destroying everything in their paths – impaling humans and animals, shattering houses, splintering already-existing trees, turning the world into a primeval forest and then – silence.
except for the screams.
the story begins in england, on the night of the trees, where a man named adrien sleeps alone in his house while his wife michelle is away in ireland on a business trip. they had fought before she left, ending in a prolonged sulk from him and exasperation from her and now, with communication impossible, adrien is unable to contact her, to know how far the treepocalypse has spread, whether she is even still alive.
adrien is no hero. he is fearful, cautious, unambitious, and filled with self-loathing. he knows he has been a disappointing husband to michelle, despite all her indulgent coaxing, giving him the space to find himself and his own path to happiness.
‘Little things overwhelm you. Sometimes it’s as if everything overwhelms you.’
‘You’re right,’ he’d said, wiping tears and rainwater alike from his cheeks. ‘But in those times the world just seems so damned formidable.’
With one arm she’d held the umbrella over his head. With the other she’d reached around his waist and held on to him tight. ‘I want to help you, Adrien. But you mustn’t give up. You can’t wait for the world to be perfect before you start living in it.’
and now, on his own, in a decidedly imperfect world, adrien is at a complete loss of how to cope with this most unexpected turn of events. wandering dazed through the chaos of the new world, he sees dead bodies, looted supermarkets, bewildered police, wild creatures skulking through a territory reclaimed by nature, and he is horrified and helpless. he meets hannah and her teenaged son seb, reluctantly agreeing to follow them to hannah’s brother zach’s place, where he has been living off the grid as a forester and will presumably be unfazed, even delighted, by these arboreal developments. romantically-minded seb encourages adrien to go from there to ireland to find michelle, and adrien agrees; having no intention of following through, but lacking the self-sufficiency to survive on his own. as for hannah, she is enchanted by the appearance of the trees. a vegetarian who adores nature, she doesn’t register the impaled bodies, seeing only the beautiful, magical, rightful reinstatement of nature’s dominance over civilization.
adrien’s views of nature are more dismal:
How he hated gardening. The falseness of it. Digging out a weed because it wasn’t pretty enough. Coming upon the slugs who had melted after digesting pellets. One time blindly reaching into a spray of withered daffodils and finding a bird bleeding to death from someone’s pet cat.
‘Mother Nature is a psychopath,’ he’d told Michelle, ‘and I won’t spend my weekends on my hands and knees, painting her toenails.’
over the course of the novel, events transpire which will alter their individual relationships with nature, and ultimately, their most essential characteristics, causing them both to do things that would have been unthinkable before the trees. this is more than just a simple wilderness survival situation. the woods have eerie qualities apart from the nature of their arrival, including spindly twiglike creatures known as whisperers and also kirin, which act as guiding spirits.
in addition, the forest has a tendency to redirect those who wander its paths, and hallucinatory qualities that impart to some a borg-like connectivity to the natural world:
‘In the egg it’s so sweet. You float in the slime, and when your mother sits in the nest you get so warm.’ The man wrapped his arms around himself, a weak smile passing over his face. ‘You grow, then. Do all the growing you can in the heat. It makes you want to break out and yell for worms, and you don’t know any better and you don’t know how cruel things are on the outside.’ He shook his head sorrowfully. ‘But when you’re the mother bird, that’s when you know.’
the story has a distinct fairy-tale cast to it; one of the grimmer ones, where nature is capricious, indifferent, cruel, and occasionally beautiful:
Adrien watched a lone pink petal flitter through the air, then ruin the secrecy of a spiderweb.
but the heart-stealing stars of the book are hiroko, a young japanese girl very well-acclimated to this environment, and her half-tamed fox companion yasuo, most often found curled up in the hood of her sweatshirt as she stalks through the trees, kicking ass and taking names, nursing her own regrets and secrets: Seb had helped her learn to cope with it, but a weight didn’t lighten just because you found the strength to carry it.
it’s a gorgeous, unpredictable beast of a tale – part epic quest saga, part fairytale, part cautionary tale,with romance, adventure, survival, horror, all of it. and despite being, essentially, a showdown between man and nature, it avoids the reductive preachiness of man = bad, nature = good.
‘cuz nature’s got no conception of ‘good,’ no matter how we anthropomorphize it. nature’ll rip your heart out and devour its weakest and it’ll outlast us all.