Book - The Trees

The Trees by Percival Everett cover

Tony Cross is reading his way through the Booker Prize Longlist 2022. Today he is taking on The Trees by Percival Everett...

This is a magnificent book. The prose drives you along. It is also a deeply political book about the black American experience, especially lynching. Southern trees bear strange fruit as Billie Holliday says.

We start in Money, Mississippi. White people are using the n-word with impunity. Mississippi Goddam! The first part of the story revolves around the murderers of Emmett Till – or their descendants at least – and the old woman whose accusations led to his death. The real woman is still alive and has lived a life free from the consequences of her actions. She was in the news recently. Getting away with it still. Indeed, one of the main thrusts of this book is what happens when the price must be paid.

It starts of looking like a slightly odd detective story. There’s a brutal murder. Then another. The local Sheriff seems to be at a loss. The Mississippi Bureau of Investigations (MBI) sends two black Detectives, Ed and Jim, to investigate. But something strange is happening. Similar murders start happening across America. The same MO. The same brutality. White people dying. Small numbers to start with. Then more. And more. It stops being a detective novel and becomes something else. Something like a fable or a myth.

Things spiral out of control.

I don’t know how many times I have used the example of Anna Akhmatova’s famous quote from the beginning of ‘Requiem’. But it applies again here. “Can you describe this?” The writer as witness. Akhmatova can’t put a name to the anonymous woman who asked her that question. Everett puts names to the often-unnamed victims of white brutality. Not just black people but Chinese and Vietnamese. It used to be believed that names had a magical power. There’s a part of this book which is a list of names. One after the other. Page after page. The victims of lynchings. It’s a list of real people. Some of them don’t even get names. They’re unnamed victims. Seeing them as a list is moving and can’t help but make you feel angry at justice denied.

At one point Mama Z, the 105-year-old black woman who has gathered and kept the names of the victims in numerous filing cabinets says to Damon Thruff, the assistant Professor who she’s been introduced to and who has written a book of racial violence:

“Your book is very interesting,” Mama Z said, “because you were able to construct three hundred and seven pages on such a topic without an ounce of outrage.”

Damon’s response – to fall back on academic neutrality – doesn’t seem enough. Outrage is surely the least we should feel.

The book avalanches towards its climax and then ending is…well…no spoilers but just what you want the ending of a book like this to be.

In a time like now, when the American right has decided on a path of book banning and historical denial a book like this is even more valuable. Everett has written a fantastic book here. One that everyone should read, and it would make a fine double bill with P Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout.

It is also interesting that it made the Booker Prize Longlist. This year’s list contains a lot of books that wouldn’t fit my assumptions about books that get listed for the Booker Prize. That must be a good thing. Let’s have more of it.

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

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