When we think of the apocalypse or dystopian futures, our minds usually go to scenes of the undead pursuing the living with flesh-craving resolve, giant asteroids on a collision course with Earth, or cities rife with grime and decay, poverty and despair.
They do not, however, entertain visions of giant trees of all shapes and varieties violently and without warning coursing up through the ground, ripping apart homes, roads, factories, the very fabric of civilisation itself.
But that’s what happens in The Trees by Ali Shaw when one night in the UK, and indeed worldwide, when nature reasserts itself with vengeful fury, laying waste to the hitherto permanence of all humanity hath wrought.
In an instant cities become forests, and everyone, those who live through the carnage at least, are reduced to an ancient lifestyle, one defined by living off the land, surviving on your wits, walking in steps with the rhythms and seasons of nature.
“In the blink of an eye, the world had changed. There came an elastic aftershock of creaks and groans and then, softly softly, a 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 now only woodland standing amid ruins. Some of the trees were flickeringly lit by the strobe of dying electricity, others by the fires of vehicles that had burst into flames. The rest stood in darkness, their canopy a gibbet world hung with all the things they’d killed and mangled as they came.” (P. 6)
Adrien Thomas, an unemployed man whose self-loathing and ceaseless fear of living has reduced his life to a stony caricature of itself and his marriage to near-collapse, steps into this new world, fearful and afraid but convinced that perhaps it could be the making of him, a chance to finally escape the shackles of cowardice and small vision.
He meets up with Hannah, an ardent greenie who greets this new arboreal landscape with undisguised glee, convinced that it augurs well for humanity’s future, a reset of the clock that can only do us good.
Her 16 year old Seb however is not so convinced, bereft without his laptop and his website, his 24/7 connection to the wider world, one which has instantly devolved into insular, parochial worlds and territorial villages.
Together these three unlikely companions leave their town, Adrien in search of a way to reach Ireland where his wife Michelle is on a business trip with her colleague Roland (with whom she may or may not be having an affair), and Hannah & Seb to meet with the former’s forester brother, a man who chose to live as one with nature way before it became the only option.
The world they encounter is fearfully different though recognisably the same in some ways – some people are kind, hospitable and welcoming, others menacing and violent but their concerns essentially boil down to one thing – finding a way to fashion a workable life in a world wholly alien to them, shorn as they are of their iPads, cars and mobile phones.
But Adrien particularly soon comes to realise there is much more going on that any of them realise, that forces as primordial and ancient as the Earth itself are at work and that the transformation he seeks may come in a way that he was not expecting, one that will fundamentally alter in ways no one saw coming.
The world that Ali Shaw has fashioned is an audacious one, casting civilisation aside as if it has always been ruins and decay, and celebrating nature as the future; but it’s not rampantly optimistic or naive.
The Trees is not some celebration of nature as the all-conquering hero; we are no treated to endless polemic dissertations on the evils of humanity and its heedless cruel treatment of the planet.
Much of that is implied but not in a way that bogs down the narrative or leaves you rolling your eyes with a “here goes the fanatic” force; rather The Trees simply treats this lush, green new world as a fact, a mysterious, magically real fact but nonetheless one that cannot be undone and which the remaining people must find a way to deal with.
“‘Now things are back to normal, there isn’t fairness. There isn’t compromise. There is only the coming together of force against force. Stags locking antlers. Men have always been this way, but some spent a little whole fooling themselves otherwise. When push comes to shove, justice is only ever the deferral of force onto some other man’s shoulders.'” (P. 168)
There is the strong suggestion that nature, a mystical being that sits atop a throne tended by small creatures of twigs and leaves known as “Whisperers” has simply reset the Earth back to what it was but there is no long reasoning on why; simply put, it’s happened and humanity must get on with living their lives close to nature in a manner that goes far beyond camping in a national park for the weekend.
Ali Shaw’s rich evocative world building, and the way he plants his beautifully-formed, nuanced and flawed characters into it is impressive, as is a narrative that twists and turns in sometimes predictable fashion but never in a way that leaves you feeling as if you are simply seeing the same old end of the world tropes revisited and brought to life like herbivore zombies.
The Trees is not even really a cautionary tale since there are such fantastical elements in it that you could not realistically envisage this kind of world forming in the first place.
What it does do though, as all good apocalyptic novels should do, is shine a light on humanity and ask with unflinching gaze what we would do if the end came, and whether it would transform us or simply reveal, without pity or regard, who we really are.
And it does ask the question – if all the bells and baubles of what passes for civilisation were taken away, what would that do to humanity’s soul and would we be better or worse off?
Ali Shaw is happy to let you draw your own conclusions in that regard but suffice to say you won’t finish The Trees, a masterfully engrossing pageturner that sings with lyrical language, without wondering more than once what you would do if the trees were to come, announced and with force, taking everything you knew with them.