A fan­tas­ti­cal novel felled by bar­ren lan­guage

Ali Shaw’s con­tin­ues his theme of trans­gres­sion and trans­for­ma­tion in worlds of won­der, but his lan­guage falls down, writes Matthew Adams

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Ali Shaw’s fic­tion has long ex­hib­ited a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the fan­tas­tic, trans­for­ma­tive and imag­i­na­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties of the non-hu­man world.

His first novel, The Girl with Glass Feet, tells the story of Ida MacLaird, a woman who one day finds that she is turn­ing into glass and who, in search of a cure for her mys­te­ri­ous con­di­tion, hap­pens upon an in­di­vid­ual – Mi­das Crook – who brings to her life an­other form of dra­matic change. His se­cond, The Man Who Rained, of­fers an ac­count of how Elsa Beletti, flee­ing from New York and the death of her es­tranged father (cause: tor­nado), finds her­self caught up in the life of Finn Munro, a reclusive gi­ant who is slowly turn­ing into a storm cloud, and who prom­ises to bring to Ella’s own life a sim­i­lar sense of meta­mor­pho­sis and tur­bu­lence.

The Trees shares this con­cern with what can hap­pen when ap­par­ently or­di­nary lives are vis­ited by oc­cur­rences that up­set or transgress the es­tab­lished laws of na­ture and physics. Adrien Thomas is a middle-aged man who has re­cently aban­doned his ca­reer as a his­tory teacher. When we en­counter him at the start of the novel he is mourn­ing the ab­sence of his wife, Michelle (who, af­ter en­cour­ag­ing him to find a new pro­fes­sion, is stay­ing in Ire­land), and tak­ing so­lace in a life of cheep beer, Chi­nese take­aways and westerns. Adrien is bereft of most forms of com­pany; com­pro­mised by a sense of fear and threat (“On many nights... he had lain awake imag­in­ing some cri­sis that would re­quire him to ab­scond through the win­dow”); as­sailed by con­flict­ing am­bi­tions: “He wanted to be a good man, ideally a great one. A man who would go down in his­tory as the solver of some global cri­sis... Yet he also wanted to get up late, to sit for most of the hours of the day in his boxer shorts.”

He gets his cri­sis. Wak­ing one morn­ing from the tor­por and lone­li­ness that has char­ac­terised his life with­out Michelle, he finds that the world he ex­pected to greet him has been re­placed by a for­est that has “burst full­grown out of the Earth”, de­stroy­ing the streets and the build­ings that once formed the ap­par­ently per­ma­nent en­vi­ron­ment of his life.

In the af­ter­math of this trauma, Adrien sets out – with the help of the na­ture-lov­ing Han­nah and her son Seb – to reac­quaint him­self with his wife, and to see if the trees have come to claim her world, too.

As they do so they en­list the as­sis­tance of Han­nah’s forester brother, and the en­su­ing nar­ra­tive shows us how, in the midst of dan­ger and beauty, they each come to re­align them­selves – their needs, their de­sires – with a world with which they had once felt out of step.

Shaw’s han­dling of this story is, for the most part, per­plex­ingly in­ept – and al­most all of the in­ep­ti­tude comes from his use of lan­guage.

It is re­lent­lessly in­ert, care­less, hack­neyed (beers are “cracked open”; arm­chairs are “sprawled back in”; sit­u­a­tions change “in the blink of an eye”; crowds are “stunned into si­lence”; in­di­vid­u­als try to “take stock of it all”), and when it is not th­ese it is stag­ily ar­ti­fi­cial: “Adrien swigged on his hip flask... Right now he needed what­ever kind of courage he could come by.”

When Shaw’s char­ac­ters talk to one an­other, or think aloud, they are made to do so with a sim­i­lar dis­re­gard for par­tic­u­lar­ity of sit­u­a­tion or per­son­al­ity: In find­ing that a for­est has de­stroyed his home, Adrien says ‘“What on earth’”, sets about try­ing “to think straight”, then won­ders if he might have “died and gone to some kind of hell”. And when they are not do­ing that, they talk in ca­dences that are im­bued with ex­cru­ci­at­ingly clumsy at­tempts to achieve the­matic res­o­nance: “‘ Look’, he said, ‘it’s just a tree. You can find a new favourite one. There are more than a few to choose from.’ She turned and glared at him. ‘It’s not just any tree. It’s liv­ing his­tory.’” One of the many prob­lems with writ­ing like this is that it robs a book of its at­mo­spheric and nar­ra­tive force.

The Trees might have been a novel rich with life. What we have feels bar­ren and cheap.

Matthew Adams lives in Lon­don and writes for the TLS, The Spec­ta­tor and the Lit­er­ary Re­view.

Cour­tesy The goodly

Lost in the for­est, but au­thor Ali Shaw’s lan­guage is also lost in cliché, says re­viewer Matthew Adams.

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