Monday, 11 January 2010

The Republic of Trees by Sam Taylor

This was a strange book, both similar to things I've read before, but also very different. I read The Republic of Trees because I read The Island at the End of the World last year and really enjoyed it. Although this is a very different, and altogether more disturbing story, it has the same elements of playing with language that the author's later book did, which I found just as interesting here as I did in the later novel.

The book starts with a small child, Michael, describing his father's death by electrocution by a lawnmower when he was a small child. His mother then moves him and his brother to France to live with their Aunt Celine, and then promptly dies herself, leaving Michael and his brother in the care of their Aunt Celine. They are lonely, but this loneliness is appeased when another English family move in close by and they become close to the two children in this family, Alex and Isobel. During one summer the four children set out to spend the summer in a local forest, taking with them only bare minimum supplies, intending to hunt and forage for food. It starts out as an idyllic, blissful society but this is where the story, to me, becomes slightly familiar. The children become less concerned about living a subsistence life, and more concerned with society, rules and revolution, even acting out history plays based on events during the french revolution. As a fifth person joins the group, the society becomes more rigid, and develops rules and punishments. They have raids on local villages for food, leaving their calling card wherever they go, and even have a minister of propaganda. The society takes its inspiration from Rousseau's Social Contract (the ideas that inspired The French Revolution), and Rousseau himself actually makes an appearance, at least to those who believe.

Well so far I'm thinking Lord of the Flies, 1984, and Animal farm. It gets even more similar to all of these books as the story progresses but was done well. The ending was possibly the most shocking I've ever read, and will stay with me for a very long time. Its a horrific portrayal of how people can be corrupted in trying to create ideals, then trying to enforce them on others, with disastrous consequences. Towards the end, the children are even starting to make up their own language as they say they need a new language for a new republic.

I think the difference between this book and those mentioned above is some of the ideas expressed by the children, that then come back into force at the end of the book, and have a dramatic effect on the conclusion of the story. The following passage, spoken by Michael, struck me, both for it's beauty and the ideas expressed in it

"I had always found it odd how people took this moment for granted-the moment of waking when your mind quickly reassembles all the feelings, ideas, memories, hopes and fears of the day before, pulling them from an alien world of dreams that you can never quite remember. Sleepily I wondered: What if there are two souls in each of us, leading parallel lives, working shifts inside the same head and body? The dayself and the nightself. The sleepself and the wakeself. The dreamself and the realself. And what if each of these souls did not believe in the existence of the other, but regarded the life that happened when it was off duty as a kind of imaginary netherworld? What if I were to my dreamself, only a series of fragmentary images, dismissed on waking as the mind's waste matter?"

In fact this theme, expressed throughout the novel becomes vitally important at the end, When he is unable to remember a lot of what he has done, said and written and relies heavily on other people to tell him what happened. As he says

"It was odd: when I read it, it had been as though I were experiencing it for the first time. Yet know, having been through it, I felt like it was part of me. It was a memory-as real, as substantial as any of my other memories"

This aspect to me is where the book differs from others that have a similar story, addressing issues of consciousness, memory and truth. It makes the reader question who exactly is driving the events, at least until Michael's last words, which could be seen to turn the whole thing on it's head, depending on how you read them.

I did have some slight plausibility issues with this book though. I know the situation is very extreme and is not something you would expect to happen, but I would question whether five children could run off to a forest, leave notices of their presence at each robbery they enact but still not be found by their parents or authorities. We are not told how old the children are, but they are all still at school, and Michael is substantially younger than the others. But other than this, I enjoyed this. Not quite as good as The Island at the End of the World, but good all the same.


Charley said...

I'm intrigued. Also, I see that you are reading The Year of Living Biblically. I listened to it on audio a while back just to have some background noise, but I ended up enjoying it more than I expected.

Jo said...

I finished The Year of Living Biblically this morning and I enjoyed it more that I thought I would too. I read it on a reccomendation and wasn't sure I would like it, but I thought it was interesting.

Jackie (Farm Lane Books) said...

I loved The Island at the End of the World, so this is on my wishlist. I'm pleased to hear that you enjoyed it and although it doesn't sound perfect I'm sure I'll still enjoy it.

Jo said...

Jackie, It was good. Not quite as good as The Island at the End of the World, but definitely enjoyable.

Kathy said...

Just finished this book this morning and am still processing it. (Wait, it's not morning anymore . . . ) Glad to hear you liked Island at the End of the World better--it is on my list too. Jo or Jackie, have you read The Amnesiac? That was one of my favorite reads of this past year. I liked it better than Republic of Trees, too.