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The Trees

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The Trees by Percival Everett

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  • The Booker Prize Longlist 2022

By Percival Everett

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A violent history refuses to be buried in Percival Everett’s striking novel, which combines an unnerving murder mystery with a powerful condemnation of racism and police violence.

Something strange is afoot in Money, Mississippi. A series of brutal murders are eerily linked by the presence at each crime scene of a second dead body: that of a man who resembles Emmett Till, a young black boy lynched in the same town 65 years before.

The investigating detectives soon discover that uncannily similar murders are taking place all over the country. As the bodies pile up, the detectives seek answers from a local root doctor, who has been documenting every lynching in the country for years…

Reviews

06 Oct 2022

JackPhillipsTRA

Money, Mississippi ‘named in that persistent Southern tradition of irony’ is a small town, rife with poverty, racism and now the site of somewhat ritualistic brutal murders.

It is here that Emmett Till was lynched in 1955, following an accusation from Granny C; now an old woman who appears remorseful and it is here that Granny C’s nephew gets brutally murdered and mutilated. Next to his body lies the body of a black man, disfigured, holding the bloodied genitals of Junior Junior and bearing more than a passing resemblance to Emmett.

What starts as a murder investigation takes a surreal turn when the body of the black man disappears only to return at the scene of a second murder, this time that of Granny C’s son Wheat, and again holding on to the mutilated remains of Wheat’s sexual organs.

As the investigation gathers pace, so do the murders and soon a spate of similar attacks is reported all over the country. White supremacists and their family members are found strangled and relieved of their genitals, alongside other bodies of black and Asian men and women, holding on to the bloodied members of the victims. Detectives from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation are dispatched to Money to try and solve the mystery of the murders and the identity of the ‘extra’ bodies. Are murdered black men and women coming back to exact their revenge? Are white folk the victims of a ‘witch-hunt’? Is the country in the grips of collective hysteria? And what has 101-year-old Mama Z got to do with it all?

The first thing to say about Everett’s Booker-short-listed novel and the most unexpected aspect of the book for me is that it is incredibly funny. I am talking about laugh-out-loud funny; makes-you-cry-with-shock funny. The gruesomeness of the murders is somewhat softened by the dark humour and the sometimes utter ridiculousness of the situation.

This book asks very important questions about race and what people are prepared to accept and live with. Everett does not pull any punches and lays bares the unrelenting and still very much open racism faced by many Americans. The liberal use of the ‘N’ word and other disparaging terms for ethnic minorities is shocking at first but more so for the ease with which people use it, even when faced with Black detectives.

Everett’s talent lies in his ability to write incredibly powerful and beautiful prose which nonetheless reads easily. There are a couple of moments where the writing veers dangerously towards vaudeville and slapstick: three Asian detectives called Ho, Chi and Minh and an advisor to the president who is such a caricature of a white supremacist, misogynistic villain that I did cringe slightly. But maybe this is the point: Everett shows us how satire is dead as people become caricatures of themselves in such an exaggerated way that it seems comically impossible to imitate. Donald Trump makes an appearance and delivers a speech which is no stranger or more unhinged than the real thing and that is in turn frightening and shocking.

I can however forgive these small moments because this is a powerful book which made me laugh, think, get angry and which seemed very timely. Alongside the humour are pages which make you sit up and think. Amongst the people, trying to make sense of the murders is Damon Thruff, an academic who has written extensively on the history of lynchings and sets about writing in pencil the name of all the lynching victims gathered by Mama Z. Seven pages of the book are dedicated to Damon’s list and I found myself reading each name aloud and not skipping the pages (which would have easily been done). It will probably sound twee but I felt a responsibility to honour and respect each of these names and to ensure I read them one by one so as not to forget them.

For the #BookerBookClubChallenge by The Royal Devon Culture Club

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