Review: Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren (AWW Challenge #6)

I’ve heard a lot about the publisher, Angry Robot, spoken of with enthusiasm and maybe a little awe by the likes of Alisa Krasnostein of Twelfth Planet Press and Tasmanian writer, Tansy Rayner Roberts. I had no idea Walking the Tree was an Angry Robot book, so I was killed two curiosity-birds with one e-purchase. The main reason for the purchase was to find out more about Kaaron Warren, who was also spoken of with much admiration.

Walking the Tree tells of a group of women who chosen to be ‘teachers’, who take a group of kids from their home village of Ombu on a pilgrimage around their island home, Botanica. The women are seeking other communities in which to settle and bear children (doing so within their own communities is taboo, because they are too closely related to the menfolk). The children go to learn about their world and the different societies that inhabit it. We see the journey mainly through the eyes of Lillah.

It took a little while to get my head around Walking the Tree. I definitely liked the writing style and the ideas. The world of Botanica was intricately built, both in its people and in the societies that lived around the girth of the giant tree that swallowed up the middle of the island. And when I say ‘giant’, I mean that the characters who go on the traditional pilgrimage around the tree know it will take five years to do so.

Five years. That’s one big-ass tree.

It took a little while to warm to the voice Warren use to tell the story. It has a quality of fable about it, like a very old fashioned fairy tale or Sir Thomas Moore’s Utopia. The story didn’t unfold the way I expected it to, either. I’ve was expected an adventure story, following Lillah’s journey of self-discovery, perhaps. And it’s not that there isn’t one of those. But while Lillah seems to be at the centre of the story, she’s actually just the eyes through which we see the centre. Which is the tree and all the societies around it.

And about half way through the book, I got it. The purpose of the story is not to unravel and delve into the person of Lillah – it’s to unravel the world.

Walking the Tree is not one woman’s ‘adventure’. It’s more like a modern Chaucer’s Tales or The Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s a science fiction fable.

The quality of the writing and the vividly drawn world kept me involved even when I wasn’t sure what kind of story I was reading. And once I cottoned on, well, the whole book crystallised for me.

Kaaren Warren, in taking us on this pilgrimage around the tree, shows us intricate layers of ideas and meaning about women, relationships, belief and society.  Each society has different attitudes to the tree, to men and women, to the ocean and to death, creating a fabulous well that Lillah and the other pilgrims can dip into to unravel the ways that humanity is still, well, very human.

The characters are more than archetypes, though they are less individual, perhaps, than the world they inhabit. Lillah and her young charge, Morace, are intriguing and able guides to the world.

I’m glad I found a way to look at the book that clicked for me. It took my enjoyment of the prose to another level, to enjoy the entire spirit of the book.

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, iPhone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.