‘Trees’ Sam Smith
Hazel is going to die. We all are, but in Hazel’s case death will come sooner. The obvious cause is her terminal illness, a genetic inheritance from her birth mother. However, Hazel doesn’t live with her birth mother. Her diagnoses prompts a split from her husband, a hand-wringing gamer, and her return to her adoptive mother’s home. Her adoptive mother starts a journal, which is the basis for this novel. In order to look after Hazel, her adoptive mother gives up the cafe she owned. Her estranged husband is killed in a car crash when he loses control when taking a corner at speed and hits a tree. This gives her the security of owning her home outright and plenty of time with Hazel.
Hazel, naturally, starts a search into her birth family. Her birth mother is dead, due to the same genetic disorder and most female relatives also seem to have fallen by the wayside. She does, however, find her birth father, Gustav Eriksson, a former record label owner who invested his wealth into a charity, the Tree Prospectus, which aims to reforest parts of England. He spends most of his time working in forestry. Hazel was the product of a one night stand and her birth mother didn’t bother telling Gustav he was now a father. Gustav only found out when he was asked to sign the adoption papers. He did so with no qualms. His child was merely a name on a piece of paper; that’s not to make him callous Gustav was adopted, parcelled off to three foster parents during his childhood so he figures what was OK for him was OK for Hazel too. When Hazel suggests they meet, his first assumption is she’s after money and he’s quick to tell her his money is all tied up in his charity. But she’s not after money. She’s trying to understand her roots.
Both Hazel and her adoptive mother discover a love of forestry. Hazel initially because it gives her time with her biological father and becomes a shared interest. Story chapters are interspersed with short chapters on trees, written as Hazel’s adoptive mother researches her new interest. The species detailed in these chapters are relevant to the story and add a layer of texture. They can also be easily skipped if readers aren’t interested. Hazel’s adoptive mother was the dull, useless, younger sister of a brilliant first-born, she learnt to hide her desires and interests so drifted into office work where she met her husband, gave up her work and opened a cafe, never really sure what she wanted to do with her life. She starts organising the charity’s paperwork; paperwork, predictably never being Gustav’s strong point. She discovers Hazel has a half-brother.
Lungren is bad news. His mother was possessive. When she and Gustav spilt, he paid child maintenance but Lungren’s mother pretended that Gustav hadn’t. Lungren lashed out when he discovered he’d been lied to and put his mother in hospital. She didn’t press charges. Lungren discovered violence seemed to solve his problems. When a teenaged Lungren came to live with Gustav, he refused to become a punching bag and threw Lungren out. There are injunctions banning Lungren from Gustav’s home and from having any contact.
Gustav is completely believable as a retired band manager turned ecologist and sometime performer of haiku with a folk band. The keyworkers, Dez and Jay credible as eco-warriors finding their idealism tempered by the charity’s business needs. Hazel is a mirror for her adoptive mother. Hazel’s even temper and willingness to muck in reflect her upbringing. Her unnamed adoptive mother an oak tree, a commonplace, ordinary person trying to make sense of herself and instinctively becoming a substitute mother to those around her. ‘Trees’ is a first person narrative and curiously, her name isn’t revealed because her identity is forged though her relationship’s with others: wife, café owner, mother.
Ultimately ‘Trees’ is an exploration of family and how individuals cast out from their birth family find their sense of belonging, their purpose. A forest holds many species of trees with specific roles: the lower level rely on the upper levels for shade, the spacing allows each their required access to nutrients in the soil, flowering shrubs attract pollinators, but, within this structure, each plant is enabled to become and grow individually. In a family where an individual is denied, Gustav and Hazel were put up for adoption, Lungren was cast out because his mother wouldn’t let him develop and become himself, Hazel’s adoptive mother was left in the shade of an older sister and deprived of the familial support her sister received, how does that individual find their way? Through her adoptive mother, Hazel found her forest. The other characters are still searching.