When I pick up a book by Sheri S. Tepper, it is never without some degree of trepidation. Even when her plots are the most fantastical and light-hearted, she usually manages to have some underlying hard-hitting social commentary. At other times, as in her last novel, Gibbon's Decline and Fall, the plot is secondary to the issues that are being studied. Gibbon's Decline and Fall was an exploration of gender politics that left me very feeling very uncomfortable. Tepper is not afraid of holding our faces in the worst our society has to offer. This also holds true for her latest novel, The Family Tree, but she here she doesn't hold our faces above the mud for quite so long. She just does so briefly once or twice, then dunks us in firmly at the end. Still, the ride this time was a lot more fun.
I am presented with a couple of difficulties in trying to review The Family Tree. First of all, I liked it very, very much, which makes it very hard to write about objectively. Second, the book contains two very radical plot twists -- both of which delight me with their sheer audacity -- and the wonderful sleight-of-hand Tepper uses to set up both twists well in advance. When I bought my copy of the book, there was a sign on the shelf below the book, where a bookstore employee was recommending it. The sign said "Read it. And then read it again." At the time, I remember being glad that the book was being promoted but a little disconcerted by what seemed to be enthusiasm turning into obsession. Now I understand the little sign perfectly. To truly understand why I smile when I think about this book, you have to read it, and then read it again.
It is difficult to give any detailed plot synopsis without spoiling the surprises which await the reader. The dust jacket circumvents this problem by only summarizing one of the two distinct plot lines that comprise the novel. This is a little disingenuous for my taste, because anyone buying the novel based on reading the dust jacket will expect a far more mainstream work of fiction.
The first plot line is set in present-day America and does not seem at first to be venturing too far from the territory of the typical detective story. Dora Henry is a police officer living in a loveless marriage with an abusive husband. The book begins as Dora discovers a small weed growing in her husband's immaculate front yard. She is afraid of his reaction when he finds the weed, but she cannot bring herself to uproot it. When her husband does discover the weed, he is furious, but his unsuccessful attempts to remove the weed prove to be the catalyst Dora needs to initiate an end to their marriage.
Soon Dora has moved out, even as the weed is proven not to be a local phenomenon. A new forest seems to be erupting in cities throughout the world. Dora must cope with navigating a city that is being taken back by Mother Nature, even as she tries to investigate a series of homicides which may or may not be linked to the current crisis.
Alternating with Dora's story is the tale of Opalears. Opalears is a slave who attends the concubines in the harem of a sultan. The sultan selects Opalears to accompany his son on a quest, because of her ability as a storyteller. Disguised as a boy, Opalears joins the prince's expedition as it sets off to find the magicians of the Hospice of St. Weel.
In the tradition of many great fantasy novels, Opalears and the prince encounter many individuals on their way who decide to accompany them on their quest. There is Izakar, the Prince of Palmia, who has left his people because of secrets he learned in a hidden library. There is also the Biwots, a family of fisherfolk driven from their home, who have held a scroll for generations that foretells that the only those on this quest can prevent the end of the world. There is Countess Elianne of Estafan, who has made an unwelcome alliance in order to maintain her small nation's autonomy, and now sees all her political endeavors unraveling.
Both plots are fun and quite satisfying, although they seem to be chapters from two very different books intermingled. One seems to be a magic-realist detective story set in the here and now, the other a tale of prophecies and sorcery in the best traditions of Tolkien. It is almost maddening trying to guess how these plots will finally intersect. But intersect they do, and manage to turn all the reader's assumptions upside-down.
I can't say much more about the plot without spoiling at least one of the surprises. I admire Tepper's ability to nudge our expectations gently in the directions they are already inclined to travel, and then make them do a 180 degree turn and stare us back in the face. You will not be able to go back and read the book a second time without completely re-envisioning much of it. Writing it, of course, Tepper had to be aware of both faces at once. I am sure she laughed maliciously to herself often as she wrote. There are lines that seem pleasant on your first journey through, that make you wince when you re-examine them, because all the implications have changed.
I recognize that the novel has the potential to make some people very angry. I don't think they would be angered by the subject matter. Instead, I think they would be angry at having been tricked. Tricked by twists of plot, and tricked by thinking that there would be traditional resolutions to conflicts. I have to admit that I was more than a little disconcerted by how macabre some of the ultimate revelations turned out to be. Still, I do think it was all in fun, and I recommend the book almost unreservedly.
Those who enjoy The Family Tree should seek out some of Tepper's earlier novels. I think the best are the sequence of somewhat interconnected novels Grass, Raising the Stones, and Sideshow. Grass and Raising the Stones can be read independently, but I would not read Sideshow without reading one of the other two books first. All three are available from Amazon.com, although Raising the Stones may require a search.