Late one night, the trees came.
“The forest burst full-grown out of the earth, in booming uppercuts of trunks and bludgeoning branches. It rammed through roads and houses alike, shattering bricks and exploding glass.”
Everything changes with the coming of the trees. Is it only in this quiet English town, or worldwide? The people in the town can’t tell. All communication is cut. People and animals have been impaled or bludgeoned to death by the trees. The electricity is gone.
Adrien Thomas is still alive, but he is just about the most poorly equipped man in the world to survive an apocalypse. He doesn’t even have any food in his house, because his wife is on an extended business trip and he’s been surviving on beer and bad takeout. For a while he just lies curled up in his bed, whispering his wife’s name, as if he could somehow summon her home to save him. She doesn’t come.
One person nearby is actually glad to see the trees come. Hannah has been living close to nature for years, raising her son Seb, foraging for their food in the fields and woods. She looks at the remains of their home and their old van, both blasted by trees, and she smiles. She smiles because the trees are elms, which in her youth had all been dying of disease, and she sees the bursting through of a newly formed forest as making something right.
But the trees have not brought paradise to Earth. This new natural world, as created by Ali Shaw, is a place of terrible beauty and sudden violence, and the protagonists take a trip to the heart of its darkness and to their own transformation. Early in the book they discover the bloody remains of a mutual acquaintance, and it is clear she was eaten by wolves. That night, Hannah cannot sleep, because all she can think about is wolves. “How they could go for days without a kill. How when at last they fed they did so in a frenzy, gorging on every last morsel. They didn’t even wait for their prey to die. They ate as soon as it was defenceless.” There are several other scenes in the book involving killing by wolves, and that passage doesn’t have to be repeated for the reader to remember it every time.
Together, Hannah, Adrien and Seb set off walking westward through the forest, toward where Hannah’s brother Zach was living in the woods, and toward Ireland, where Adrien’s wife went. The three are soon joined by Hiroko, a young Japanese woman. She is a capable hunter and speaks fluent American English, both skills she picked up from living in California. The four of them find Zach, but he is unable to help them, so they decide to keep moving west together.
Their journey takes them through the forest, which seems to have no end, into themselves, into makeshift communities dealing with the apocalypse, into conflict with each other and sometimes into the realm of magical realism. Hannah reflects on a childhood riven by grief: Her mother was killed while working for an aid organization in a desert country, and her father never got over it. Hiroko longs for the woods of Iwate Prefecture, where she lived with her grandparents. Seb misses his video games, records of which he carries in a flash drive around his neck. Adrien thinks about how little he’s done with his life, how little courage he’s had and how little he knows of skills that might help him survive. “He had not yet learned how to start a fire, let alone which mushrooms did and did not kill you. He could barely put up the tent without bashing his thumbs with the peg mallet. What exactly, he asked himself, did he know how to do? He knew how to see the bleak side of every situation, that was one thing.”
He and Hannah argue, when he tells her it’s the end of the world, and she counters that it’s a fresh start. He says, “People like you think that just because something’s pretty and green, it’s not going to do its level best to kill you… All you want is for things to be wild and natural, but I want them to be safe. The only wolf I want to see is a wolf on television, a million miles away.”
They come upon human predators, too, and odd little communities of people sprung up to survive. Every now and then Hannah sees a kirin, a creature from Japanese mythology that is supposed to portend good luck. (If you want to see a picture of one, just look at the label on Kirin beer.) The kirin guide them to places they want to go — except for one time when one is killed and slaughtered by a particularly brutal human predator. Everywhere in the book, the beauty of nature combines with its brutality, as in one scene at a campsite early in the morning: “Outside, the spiders were breakfasting on what moths and gnats they had caught overnight, and the branches of the trees were stretching with timber yawns as a dawn light danced westward through the canopy.”
All of the characters grow and change, but it is Adrien who undergoes the hero’s journey, who goes on a challenging quest — albeit accidentally — and ends up profoundly transformed. His final transformation is a powerfully written mystical experience, startling in its uniqueness, filled with joyous power.
“The Trees” is the third novel by British author Ali Shaw; his first, “The Girl With Glass Feet,” won the Desmond Elliott Prize in the U.K. “The Trees” is vivid and unsettling, violent and enchanting, a riveting meditation on the relationship between humans and the natural world, the darkness in nature and the darkness in ourselves. It is a compelling read, but probably not one you want to pick up at bedtime.