Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 240 pages; 2006.
Four adolescents — expat Brits who live in France — run away from their family homes to spend the summer in the forest free from adult control. Here, they set up a new society called The Republic of Trees based on the principles in philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract.
At first, things are carefree, even joyous. Louis, the intellectual leader, devotes his time to drawing a map of the region; Alex, the hunter, ensures there’s a ready supply of food; Isobel does the cooking; and Michael, the youngest of the quartet, climbs trees and swims in Elbow Pool.
The first half of the book is quite a charming account of Michael’s sexual awakening and, told through his eyes, the reader gets to experience his first flush of love (and lust) with the intriguing Isobel.
Later, when a fifth interloper, another ex-pat, this time a Canadian, Joy, enters their world things go a bit awry. Before long, the pleasant ‘camping trip’ takes on a worrying and menacing undertone. Sexual jealousy, sibling rivalry and power struggles all come to the fore.
When food supplies start running out the group begins some petty thievery from nearby farm houses and villages, which is indicative of their running-on-empty mindset and their slide into darkness.
Despite the republic becoming more formalised, with proper rules and laws put in place, things begin to spiral out of control.
The tale takes on a nightmarish, and downright nasty, element that does not end until the book’s gruesome climax.
Lack of empathy
I have to admit that I did not like The Republic of Trees very much. That’s not to say it isn’t well written, because it is. The plot’s quite good, too. I just did not feel any empathy for any of the characters and had no idea of their ages — early teens, mid-teens, late teens? — because none are specified. It’s such a minor but oh-so important element.
There were several things that did not ring true either: how could four teenagers run away and not be found, and which teenagers are into politics and philosophy to the point of creating their own revolution these days?
Ultimately, while this novel has many similarities to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Toby Litt’s Deadkidsongs, two books I’ve read and enjoyed, The Republic of Trees just didn’t do it for me.