The Trees by Ali Shaw (2016)

One day, in the early hours of the morning, the world changed.

“The forest burst full-grown out of the earth, in booming upper-cuts of trees and bludgeoning branches. It rammed through roads and houses alike, shattering bricks and exploding glass. It sounded like a thousand trains derailing at once, squeallings 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 a blink of an eye, the world had changed, There came an elastic aftershock of creaks and groans and then, softly softly chinking shower of rubbled cement. Branches stilled amid the wreckage they had made. Leaves calmed and trunks stood serene, Where, not a minute before, a suburb had lain, there was no only woodland standing among ruins ….”

Adrian Thomas was one of the few who survived. He was a middle-aged man who had been drifting through life, who was probably on the brink of divorce, who had been home in bed alone while his wife, Michelle, was away on business.

He didn’t know what to do, and so he got up and walked, hoping to find others.

The-Trees-by-Ali-Shaw-front-cover-667x1024He met Hannah, who was excited by what had happened. She thought – she hoped – that the trees might have come to save earth, that they might have risen up in protest at what man had done. I loved that idea. She planned to set off, with her teenage son, Seb, to find her brother. He was a forester, and she was sure that he would know how they should live in the very different new world.

She encouraged Adrian to travel with them, to find his wife, to take the initiative and to try to put things right between them. He wasn’t sure that he could do it, he wasn’t sure that he wanted to do it, but he didn’t want to be left behind.

The three of them set off into the west, through ruined towns and endless woodland.

They were all changed by their journey, and it was lovely to watch that happening and to watch the evolving relationships between them. A  young woman joined them, and that changed the dynamics. They met other people, who were responding in very different ways to what was happening.

The human story is engaging; and there are many thoughtful details that enhance their stories. I particularly liked that Adrien, who had been a teacher and hated it, was worried about travelling with a teenage boy but found himself interested in Seb’s attitudes and ideas. I felt for Hannah, who struggled to come to terms with what she found and with what happened at her brother’s home.

There are weaknesses though. The dialogue is weighed down by clichés. The division – between those who want to work with nature and those who want to fight against it – is too black and white.

There were hints that there was life in the woods, that the forest was continuing to evolve, and I wish that side of the story had been developed a little more. But I’m not sure that it could have been without losing something important.

There’s a side to this book that I would loved to see expressed another way; in art, or in music. I almost wish it had been a graphic novel. It would make a wonderful film; and while we wait for that I have to say that I think this would be a great book club book.

It’s more commercial and less literary than I expected.

I loved the human drama; I loved the evocation of the beauty and the darkness of the strange new world; and I loved the ideas I was made to think about.

I appreciated the unpredictability of the story, and, while I was sorry that the final act was a little over-dramatic, I loved the ending that wasn’t really an ending at all.

I wish I could say that this is a great book. It isn’t; it’s missing a vital spark. And I think it may be a book for a different kind of reader.

But I can say that it is an interesting book, and that I’m glad that I read it.

16 thoughts on “The Trees by Ali Shaw (2016)

  1. It *does* sound intriguing, Jane, and perhaps it should have evolved in a different way. Not for me, I think, but I was interested in reading your thoughts on it!


    1. Well, from my viewpoint Ali Shaw did many things well, but the things I liked less meant that they weren’t presented as well as they might be. It would probably be a better book for a younger reader less aware of nature and what we are doing to it who would be approaching the subject from further away making it more of a journey for them.

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    1. The cover is brilliant, but I think it might set up wrong expectations, because the story of focused more on the human drama and the new life in the forest is not explored too much. There really were too many possibilities to fit in a single book.

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  2. A very interesting review, thank you. I’m not sure it’s for me, either, but I think my husband will like the inevitable audio book then he can confirm whether I’ll like it …

    And I love the way you flip between mid-20th-century and bang-up-to-date books, by the way.


    1. Some of the writing is lovely, but thinking of one or two thing I have to say that this probably isn’t a Liz book. It isn’t that they are gratuitous or exploitative but they are quite stark.

      I’ve always liked to mix books up, because I think you see books more clearly when they are set against something very different. And though I would always pick the old books if I had to make a choice I have never thought that great writing was the preserve of particular generations.


      1. Thank you for your sensitivity! I will leave it, but Matthew has it noted down (there’s no audio book at the moment).

        And I agree with you on mixing books up, although that gets frustrating when you happen to be reading a Virago but you want to read Dorothy Richardshon next, but you need something different in between!


  3. Trees taking over the world? I would read this just to think about the idea of it. It’s too bad it’s not all it could have been. Whenever I read books like that I hope that someone else will take the idea and do it better (too bad taking ideas is frowned upon).


  4. I love the idea of reimagining a novel as art of music!
    I enjoyed The Girl With Glass Feet, and have been looking out for more by Shaw; I would still pick this one up at some point, but will bear your reservations in mind.


    1. This is a rather bigger book and I think there may have been some literary growing pains. Annabel liked this more than idea, and, as long as you go in with the understanding that this is about a human journey rather that the trees, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t be well entertained.


  5. I totally understand your reservations Jane, but for me the highlights outweighed the bits that didn’t quite work, and I loved it as I loved his other two novels. There are so many brilliant ideas in this book, but the whole quest narrative wouldn’t have worked as well if he’d stopped to develop that side, but Adrien transformed into Tom Bombadil say, would have been interesting!


    1. The balance went the other way for me, but I do agree that there are lots of brilliant ideas and that the story might have been less effective if other ideas had been explored. I liked the quest, but the other possibilities would have appealed to me more.


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