I once heard Kelly Link say that she found the process of writing a story often became reflected in the contents of that story. Assuming she's not the only writer this happens to, it's not surprising how many stories begin with scenes of giving birth. So it is with Walking the Tree, Australian author Kaaron Warren's second novel. This is a story of emergence into the world, of transformation and change; a tale of outsides and insides, of surfaces and interiors. It is full of promise and potential—but perhaps inevitably in a work so suffused with such themes and imagery, it is also a deeply frustrating novel in both its surfaces and its interior.
The birth that begins Walking the Tree interrupts the testing of Lillah, one of several women in training for the role of teacher. Teachers on the island of Botanica are young women who chaperone groups of children on a five year tour of the other communities that ring the enormous Tree at the heart of the island. The word for world is Tree on Botanica: the great Tree provides life-giving food and shelter, tools and building materials; its giant leaves are used to collect rainwater. Those same leaves can cause destruction and death when they fall, and from the Tree emerge ghosts and other horrors.
The chief danger the inhabitants of the island face comes not from the Tree, however, but from themselves. In generations past a plague, Spikes, had decimated this world's human population. The survivors who fled to Botanica learned from this calamity a deep appreciation for population limits and genetic diversity, along with a mortal fear of illnesses. In the wake of the Spikes plague, the system of teachers was devised as a form of population and cultural control. Periodically, each of the communities on Botanica, called Orders, selects its best unattached young women—the smartest, strongest, kindest, loveliest, fittest—to be teachers. As the teachers lead their Order's children around the Tree, visiting the other communities, they are encouraged to sample everything each Order has to offer—its customs, its lifestyle, and its men. When a teacher finds an Order they wish to stay in, a man they wish to stay with, they do, and an unattached woman from that Order is chosen to take the teacher's place in the school. The woman who gives birth at the book's beginning was a teacher who stayed in Lillah's home Order of Ombu to marry Lillah's brother: the birth of her child establishes from the start Lillah's own destiny, and the reproductive purpose behind what is on the surface an educational system.
For much of its length, though, Walking the Tree is essentially a travelogue of Botanica's Orders. What binds the episodic structure together into a novel are the images, themes, and ideas that Warren weaves into the journey of Lillah, her fellow teachers, and their young charges.
Most obvious are the anthropological and ethnographic elements. At the suggestion of a friend, Lillah takes up the rare task of mapping Botanica and its communities, recording something of the culture of each Order they travel through, their interpretations of certain common rituals and stories. As Lillah makes notes and has conversations, a suggestion of the geographic essentialism of culture emerges. Each Order is bracketed by the Tree on one side and the sea on the other, with the sun above. These factors—how much land is between the Tree and the sea, how much direct sunlight that land receives, how fruitful this part of the Tree is—may, several characters suggest, have a deep impact on how each Order lives. Or equally, such factors may be used as excuses. Several Orders are suspiciously quick to justify certain behaviors and customs by their not living in as prosperous a land as Lillah's native Ombu, yet there's the suggestion that these behaviors are changeable with the right push. I was reminded here of Richard Adams's Watership Down, another travelogue of those in search of the ideal home with ideal mates, which makes a similar argument: that geography can play a role in culture, but that that role can often be more a matter of encouraging citizens to believe that certain suboptimal solutions are required than of actually requiring them. Here and throughout Walking the Tree, Warren displays a sense of how individual human choices and these sorts of human foibles form, in aggregate, the island's broader systems of culture and understanding.
Indeed the most interesting cultural elements Warren has created on Botanica are predicated entirely on shared understandings among individuals. Humanity on this world appears on its last legs: a dozen or so Orders huddled around the Tree, each with perhaps a hundred people. The species, it seems given, cannot sustain any sort of inter-Order conflict. And the Spikes plague, among other past disasters, has given humanity a keen sense of the value of diversity. So as one teacher says:
"That is the whole point of the school. To realise that there is no good or bad place, there are simply different ways to live." (p. 311)
Walking the Tree is thus the rare book that depicts a society based on pluralism instead of the more common contemporary notion of tolerance. Tolerance, at heart, is often a desire for ignorance—"I'll let other people do what they want as long as it doesn't interfere with me doing what I want" is at its core a desire not to be required to know anything about others in order to carry out one's own actions. Because interference is proscribed, it can lead to conflict even when it is unintentional, unaware. Pluralism, on the other hand, is the active appreciation for the benefits of diversity, and the understanding that living in a diverse society means learning enough about how others live to be able to make educated choices about one's interactions with them, to avoid conflicts through knowledge. This pluralist understanding is very much at the core of Botanica's school system. So, for example, when Lillah and her fellow teachers are mistreated by the men of an Order they had been given only vague warnings about, they wonder how to better inform future schools about the Order, rather than how to punish its men for their immediate actions:
"It is not our place to tell other Orders how to behave. They may come here and find our behaviour offensive. We can punish those within our own Order for breaking the Way, but not those in others." (p. 295)
This brings us to the other key element of interest in Warren's depiction of Botanican culture, the handling of gender. There is a certain very common form of literary feminism that reverses gender roles. These stories make a society's warriors all women, make property and rule descend through female heirs, retell common stories giving the female characters the agency—and then note how hapless the men are when stripped of their traditional roles. All of this is politically necessary: to illustrate the skewed nature of the unreversed roles; to give voice and legitimacy to thoughts and emotions often suppressed; to express the (for some) radical idea that things could be different. But I do sometimes wonder whether this tactic doesn't become an artistic rut for some writers, and what their view of a more equitable arrangement might look like. Walking the Tree is not necessarily that equitable arrangement. It is by no means a feminist utopia—Botanica is not without its sexist elements, including much of the teacher system as it impacts both women and men. But Botanica does at least present a creditable alternate arrangement, one that starts to mix the ecofeminism of a writer like Sheri S. Tepper with the ideal of multicultural harmony at the root of much of Ursula K. Le Guin's early science fiction. Warren's Botanica gives us something to point to and wonder why our society can have such different understandings of similar behaviors, and ask questions about which understandings we prefer, and what is at their root. It asks specific questions about the individual and society, including one—"was it worth it risking their civilisation to save one child?" (p. 314)—that makes an interesting counterpoint to Le Guin's famous story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." And Botanica does strongly reflect contemporary feminist ideas in at least one regard, the emphasis feminism puts on ensuring that capable individuals can define for themselves who they will be and what roles they will play. The goal of most Botanican systems is to allow individuals, women in particular, to discover what they want and make informed choices within constraints that are not necessarily as tight as they first appear. The focus here is on the inner and personal world rather than the outer, the goal is movement from one to the other. As Lillah is advised before she departs with the school:
"You must be careful not to silence your true self, though. So many of us ignore our inner voices in trying to please those around us, and we can lose our individuality." (p. 41)
These anthropological aspects of Walking the Tree are always interesting but not always successful. Given the variety of possibilities Warren had at her disposal, it was unfortunate for example to see racial stereotypes invoked in one Order, however unintentionally. Lillah's home of Ombu is described as a land of plenty due to being on the sunny side of the island, with a large space between the Tree and the sea. Yet Ombu's denizens are fair skinned enough to burn easily. The journey of Lillah's school eventually brings them to an Order whose people are brown-skinned, despite having very little open land and being to one side of the sun's daily route. This Order's brown men play sports with rough abandon, and are musical, well-endowed, thieving, and sexually abusive. Really? More generally, because Warren focuses on a few key differences between many Orders, Walking the Tree resists examining its anthropology in depth—we don't know enough about many aspects of life on Botanica, and Warren largely dodges the hard cases that might test the island's systems.
The book's strength is more in its breadth of concerns, its balancing of concrete details with more diffuse themes and images. The Tree itself is something of a guidepost in this regard. It is described only in isolated snatches of trunk, roots, leaves; never as a totality. Yet the totality of its presence dominates the novel. It defines the very surface of the physical world for those who dwell on, under, in, and around it, but also leaves its mark on their inner world—as a symbol somewhere between Yggdrasil, Gaia, and a monstrosity akin to the Tree of Life in Jack Vance's Son of the Tree.
All this is conveyed in a rather detached third person narration that focuses on Lillah but only ever skims the surface of her thoughts, preserving the distinction between outer and inner worlds. Lillah herself is well aware of this distinction: "perhaps I smile more on the outside than on the inside" (p. 17) is one of our rare glimpses into her inward musings. She smiles out of desire for attention and respect, but privately feels that "she was too selfish and she knew it" (p. 220). It is up the the reader to notice the contradiction in this self-assessment, as Lillah decides against staying in several promising Orders so that she can continue protecting her half-brother Morace, one of the school's students. Indeed, Lillah's greatest flaw is that she can be too quick and simple in her judgments about people, herself included. This is reflected in the short sentences and limited vocabulary of the narration, and in the sparse characterization of Lillah's fellow teachers and their students—most are identified by just a single trait. It is only when we begin to notice Lillah's unreliability that some of these characterizations open up, and it becomes clear that, as with the Tree, no one person is going to be able to fully and truly describe another or tell their story.
By the same token, it takes Lillah time—most of the book—to begin to see her own good qualities. As the social expectations she had applied to herself fall to the side, she proves herself deeply loyal to family, open-minded, and endlessly curious. Warren's characterization puts the lie to conventional genre notions of character development—growth as not so much a matter of change as of learning who you are through a tempering process of understanding what was already there, inside.
Growth as a process of birth into one's self.
It is in birth, that image from the book's beginning and repeated several times throughout, that so many of the book's disparate elements coalesce. There is truth and the truth is inside, Lillah has been told in the passage quoted above. Lillah's journey around the outside of the Tree is educational, but limited—the Orders tell many stories of the world, but all equally untrue. So inevitably, when fears that Lillah's half-brother Morace is sick catch up to the school, Lillah must journey inside the Tree to learn the truth of the world, and of herself. When she emerges from the Tree's interior, out of the hot, damp, dark cavern blinking into the sunlight of the outside world again, it very much feels like a moment of birth, of new possibility. And to some degree of a new Lillah, although in the main Lillah is Lillah to the end.
That Lillah remains in her heart the same Lillah makes Walking the Tree's final chapters work in a way they might not have otherwise. For one thing, Lillah's irreverent mental commentary is the lone bit of characterization amid long passages of exposition as she learns the secrets of her world. (Or at least some of the secrets; other key information is presented somewhat inelegantly in an afterword to the novel, outside the story proper.) Lillah's character also goes some ways toward ameliorating the conceptual tension between the narrative subjectivity that had dominated the majority of the novel, and the idea of absolute truth that emerges at the end, most particularly in the book's final sentence. Given the arguments that the book makes about insides and outsides, the assertion that one person can speak truth of others is highly problematic—unless, that is, the assertion is just Lillah being Lillah, too quickly thinking that she understands what she still doesn't fully grasp.
I wrote at the outset that my two chief frustrations with Walking the Tree involve its outside and its inside. The frustration with the outside is easy enough to describe: the book's cover. The back cover of my published UK edition contains the instruction to "FILE UNDER: FANTASY" and a quote from Ellen Datlow, best known in recent times for her work editing dark fantasy and horror; the front cover bears a quote from Trudi Canavan, "bestselling author of the Black Magician trilogy," a fantasy work. Additionally the publisher, Angry Robot, is marketing as similar two more of its books on the back cover: Warren's debut novel Slights and Aliette de Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld, a dark fantasy. In short, this is a science fiction book by a female author that is being marketed very hard to look like a fantasy book—and a fantasy book for a primarily female audience. This was done, I'm sure, with the best of intentions. But there is a deeply insidious notion about the relationship between women and science that's suggested by this chosen marketing. Labeling a science fiction book by a female author as fantasy contributes to the fallacious but widespread idea that women don't write science fiction. This in turn can only reinforce the stereotype that women aren't any good at science. Parallel to this, to fixate the book's marketing so squarely on women reinforces that damaging gender paradigm that men's stories should be of interest to both men and women, while women's stories should be of interest only to women. The two problems are entwined: men's stories are important to all because they are seen as real, and thus can be grounded in something real like science; women's stories are dismissed as fantasy, nothing that could ever happen and so nothing that's worth treating as actionable. So I'd argue that the book's marketing, whatever its intentions, is actively, damagingly in opposition to the ideas of the book's content.
This marketing, of course, is just another matter of surfaces, and doesn't impact the content of Warren's story, the interior of the book. The same, alas, cannot be said for the prose construction of Walking the Tree. I searched several times—in vain—for a press release from the publisher to announce that they had published an early, uncorrected draft by mistake; the writing is that rough. Tonally it all works, as described above. It's in the details that the writing becomes a hindrance, often making the reader skip back several pages to be sure they didn't miss the entrance of a character, a change of scene, or the passage of time. The exact same details may be repeated redundantly, as when Lillah thinks on one page "it was so close inside, pressed together, thick, airless" and three pages later "usually there were too many people, too crowded, too close, not enough air" (pp. 36, 39; compare also pp. 418 & 446, and the number of times Pandana is referred to as "Lillah's favourite teacher"). In another case, exposition on "walker women" (p. 265), those who leave their adopted Orders to walk home toward the end of life, occurs several hundred pages after we have already learned everything contained therein through context. Worse, though, are when the details don't match up. In one Order, Lillah is being propositioned by one man, another interrupts and leads her away to a cave where they have sex; the next day, the story wants us to understand that this all happened with the first man. This sort of thing happens frequently as a general sentence-level vagueness abounds, where it's often unclear which "they" or "she" or "he" is being referred to because many paragraphs skip around between subjects and speakers, and use labels like "her friend" or "a voice said" even for people whose names are well known. At other times it's the cultural details that don't match. A man in an Order who are terrified of the sea draws a picture of a seawalk (p. 303); another Order is described as "closest to a ruling capital" (p. 250), where both ruling and capital would seem to be quite meaningless concepts here. And time overall seems to go by too quickly, with odd skips (try counting the number of days that pass in the year between p. 180 and p. 250). The cumulative effect of all these factors was that I found myself frequently thrown out of the story in exasperation, and less and less willing to trust it enough to return.
In the end, you only encounter so many really good novels each year—Walking the Tree isn't one of them, but it could have been. The ideas at the heart of Warren's novel are timely and interesting, and its setting and characters are well positioned to address them. But the book's surfaces badly need more polish before I'd feel comfortable handing it to any demanding reader.
Matt Denault (email@example.com) has never lost the seriousness of a child at play—especially when it comes to reading. He lives just outside Boston. Depending on when you are reading this, he either has or had a blog called Lingua Fantastika.
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