Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Book Review | The Republic of Trees by Sam Taylor

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One of the most vivid, gripping and chilling first novels of recent years, The Republic of Trees tells the story of Michael, Louis, Alex and Isobel, four children on the edge of adolescence, who run away to the forest to establish their own utopian community. They hunt, climb trees, fall in love, and plan a revolution based on the principles of Jean Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract. All seems well in The Republic of Trees until the sudden arrival of Joy. Under her influence, the group's discipline is tightened, their relationships grow more erotic and obsessive, and the shadows of a nightmarish dystopia start to encroach on reality. As the heat of the summer rises, The Republic of Trees powers towards a shocking and terrifying conclusion.

A contemporary gothic fable told with the skill and daring of a natural storyteller, The Republic of Trees is a compelling and imaginatively charged tale of adolescence, the desire to escape, and sexual awakening.


Some stories have been told. I'd like to think we can all agree on that.

Among the greatest narratives in literature, never to be prequelled, sequelled or otherwise  equalled, there's Lord of the Flies, William Golding's touchstone tale of a class of English schoolboys shipwrecked on an island and left to their own devices. The pivotal difference between Lord of the Flies and The Republic of Trees is that the kids of Sam Taylor's short novel abandon life as we know it by choice rather than through circumstance: on the thrumming cusp of adolescence, the four - Michael, Louis, Alex and Isobel - take to a lush, monkey puzzle of a forest in the south of France in order that they might escape the onset of adulthood. As our distinctly unreliable, and latterly downright deceitful narrator Michael puts it, "my private universe would soon be under attack by the grown-up armies of discipline and focus. I knew I would have to wake up soon. But school didn't start until September. First I had the summer to dream through." (p.17)

And dream they do, for a little while. Of sex and a sustainable lifestyle, of morality, politics and philosophy; the kids capture existence as they understand it in a bubble and frolic, uninhibited, within its viscous walls. In the beginning, The Republic of Trees positively vibrates with possibility. After all, "books were like doors; you opened them and entered them and all the old rules disappeared. In books, anything could happen." (p.9) Its extraordinary promise is of a chronicle of becoming, timeless and intimate and honest. However, there is little honesty in what it does become, once Joy arrives and the impromptu commune begins acting out Jean-Jacques Rousseau's revolutionary iteration of The Social Contract, as before they've staged scenes from the Revolution, and intimacy only insofar as there's some heavy petting.

Simply put, the trouble with The Republic of Trees is that as it marches ever onward, the sense of possibility so vital to Taylor's poetically put narrative dwindles and diminishes until all that's left is an idea:

"At school, you learn to obey the numbers; you learn to see the bars of your cage. Of course they may be imaginary bars - the cage may be an illusion - but that does not mean you are not imprisoned by it. It is not what exists that matters, after all. It is what you believe exists." (p.6)

To begin with, I believed in the characters of The Republic of Trees - though they did not exist. I believed in their hunger, their fear, their hopes and their dreams, yet they were only ever ghosts... mindless puppets playing out an experiment straight out of Psychology 101 as per the will of their master. Ultimately, one wonders if even The Republic of Trees is real, as such, for it seems to me more a haberdashery of ideas borrowed - from the great William Golding and here and there the behavioural sciences - than anything truly created.

If The Republic of Trees is anything in its own right, it's as the beginning of an argument that former pop culture correspondent Sam Taylor will be worth reading one day. Here and now, however, this novel - though forbidden, surreal and erotic at the outset; I would not dare deny its exquisite beginning - this novel lamentably loses itself in its own pretensions, devolving in short order into trite, self-congratulatory tosh. Lord of the Flies it is not.

Then again, what The Republic of Trees is not is hardly the point. What the point is, in the end... I'm afraid I haven't the faintest.


The Republic of Trees
by Sam Taylor

UK Publication: March 2005, Faber & Faber

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