"Botanica is the island, but all of Botanica is taken up by the Tree.
"Lillah has come of age. She is now ready to leave her community and walk around the Tree for five years, learning all that Botanica has to teach her. Before setting off, Lillah is begged by the dying mother of a young boy to take him with her. But if anyone suspects he carries the disease himself, he and Lillah will be killed."
It would be doing Walking the Tree a disservice to say, as I imagine many critics may, that it is a novel about what it is to be a woman. Criminally underappreciated Australian author Kaaron Warren certainly has much to say about the concept of femininity as we understand it, but her thematic concerns are substantially more diverse than that reductive description allows for. Walking the Tree is, firstly, a novel about discovery; about community, truth and history, amongst other things. Its concerns range far and wide, and though gender is among them, threaded finely through a narrative that takes place over the course of nearly a decade in the life of Lillah, who leaves her village a girl and returns an adult, the notion never overbears on the darkly fantastic tale Warren has to tell.
Botanica is a beautifully realised setting: an island dominated by a great tree, the circumference of which takes five years to traverse and around whose roots various Orders have sprung up. Every one of these communities in microcosm is unique; each produces a different thing, be it Jasmine-scented perfume, pottery or morning-after moss; each has its own array of fears and beliefs, each its own, individual story to tell; each reacts differently to Lillah and the school of children she and her fellow teachers accompany on their mind-widening pilgrimage around the tree. As they come to grasp the myriad differences between their home in Ombu and the handful of other Orders, so too do we.
The further Lillah progresses in her journey, the greater the reader's understanding of Botanica becomes; spread before us, as it is before her, lies the island in all its glory - and all its horror. For not all of the Orders dotted around the outer rim of Botanica are as welcoming to teachers and their schools as the people of Ombu. Among the communities there are those that clearly despise the intrusion, though while some only tolerate the tradition, others revel in it. In one Order, Lillah and her class of innocents are met with ceremony and reverence; in another, the resentment only relents to make room for the advances of lecherous men.
In terms of storytelling, Walking the Tree is a fairly straightforward read, but Warren's almost detached tone belies a startling blackness at the heart of her narrative. Lillah encounters the best of Botanica during her pilgrimage, but she must also face up to the worst. There is sickening brutality throughout: rape, intimidation, sheer, stark terror and tragedy. When leaffall claims the life of one teacher, the others exchange glances which say "We are glad it isn't one of us. This wasn't a good teacher. She did not deserve to die, but we are glad it is her and not one of us," and such bittersweet insight, such honesty, is commonplace throughout Warren's revelatory second novel. Her matter-of-fact voice communicates the tale's darker turns as effectively as it does the rare interludes of light.
Beyond a disarmingly frank desire to experience intercourse for the first time - for in Botanica, woman cannot couple with men from their own community - Lillah begins her journey in the abstract, but her pilgrimage soon becomes deeply personal. In one Order she picks up the trail of her absent mother; in another, far-fetched tales of her father's brother spark her imagination; and always, Marcus is with her: Marcus, a child who may or may not carry a sickness that could decimate the island's already-sparse populace.
Unbidden, Lillah's journey begins to affect her, and us, in turn. As her sibling observes, "we are all changed by even the smallest experience. We cannot stay the same no matter how hard we try," and as Lillah's trip around the tree becomes more emotional, the reader's stakes are engendered so that when she and her charges are imperiled, our sympathies are with them. But neither Warren nor her protagonist cast judgment on the other cultures, not even the most awful of them: Walking the Tree is progressive in many ways, but it treads lightly, respectful always, and for its restraint, the narrative is all the more successful.
Walking the Tree is an unpretentious, eye-opening experience. Dark but never dim, Karron Warren's first novel since she documented the psyche of a serial killer in her debut Slights is an insightful, earthy chronicle of diversity and understandings arrived at and remade. Hers is a voice that demands to be heard, and I don't doubt that this marvelous fable represents only the root of her talents.
Walking the Tree
by Kaaron Warren
February 2010, Angry Robot
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