Walking The Tree
by Kaaron WarrenIn our modern, asphalt-lined world we tend to think of trees as uniformly good things which provide oxygen, food, and shelter for all manner of creatures. But in Walking The Tree things are different. The island of Botanica is dominated by one huge specimen which crowds out the human inhabitants and blocks out the sunlight. It can crush people under falling limbs, and its plate-sized leaves can be deadly when they fall. The Order of Ombu, a small settlement on the island's coast, venerate the Tree. They whisper their secrets to it, make offerings, and fear the ghosts that they believe live inside it in hollowed-out parts of its trunk.
It's customary for small groups of female teachers to travel around the island with their young charges, learning about other communities and looking for a place to settle and raise children of their own. Lillah is a young woman who hopes to be a teacher. The story is told from her point of view, although her speech can seem a little primitive at times. She's curious about the rest of Botanica, and eager to get out and learn all she can. Yet at every settlement they will face different cultures that may not always be welcoming. And even though the Tree is all part of the same organism, it takes on different characteristics as they move around the island. For Lillah the risk of travelling is magnified when she's asked to do something she knows may endanger the whole school and every Order they come into contact with.
Botanica is extraordinary. The peculiar environment is intriguing, and the cultures that have evolved around it are depicted in fascinating detail. An apocalyptic event in the past appears to have left them all terrified of illness and deformity, and living in isolated groups with a reduced gene pool. Hints of the way things used to be are scattered around the island. But readers must pay attention in order to pick up on the clues about Botanica's origins, and the truth behind all the superstitions.
The Orders living around the Tree share some legends with the people of Ombu, and they are similar in many ways. But Lillah's journey is an exercise in culture shock. The ritual-driven societies in this book are very believable, in part because they echo the cultures of other real-life peoples. Reading Walking The Tree is like discovering lost tribes in the Amazon.
The pace is often sedate, with action that focuses on domestic themes such as food, births, marriage and gift-giving. However that's not to say this book is unexciting. There's always some crisis or intrigue going on in Lillah's life that keeps our attention. Lillah may not always be honest with herself, but she has the mind of an explorer and her curiosity makes her a captivating character. Her adventures can be explicit, though at the same time they're not in the least bit romantic.
Walking The Tree doesn't seek to appeal to our basic emotions with blood-soaked action, sugary romance or melodrama. Instead the book presents a puzzling world full of subtle mystery and fascinating people. Kaaron Warren isn't afraid to challenge readers to think, so if you prefer your fiction cerebral and highly original this book would be a great choice.
4th May 2010
Review © Ros Jackson