Best and Worst: Finding (a Red Tree at) the End of the World

Reading is an experience. I have fond memories of re-reading James Joyce’s Ulysses while sitting in St Stephen’s Green and the delightful coincidence of being introduced to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged while travelling the USA by train. Name a book I’ve read, and I can tell you about the when and where. Choosing the best and worst reads came down to choosing the best and worst reading experience, which is why I’m going to do it backwards. My Worst Read Ever is seriously depressing, so let’s get that out of the way first:

Feed by M. T. Anderson

In 2011, I read a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction for my studies in Children’s Literature. Spending a year reading books about various ways the world ends and how we’ll be left rotting in a dystopian landscape definitely does something to a person. It was Feed that left me crying for weeks whenever I saw anything that even remotely reminded me of the characters and world constructed in the novel.

Feed is set in an eerie imagined future in which corporations run everything (including SchoolTM), advertising is everywhere – including in your head – and language is coming to… you know… that thing…

Told from the first-person perspective, it tells the story of adolescents in an apathetic world driven by consumerism. If you’re not a consumer, then what use are you to society? Titus, the main character, reflects that the power of the corporations isn’t ideal “because who knows what evil shit they’re up to? Everyone feels bad about that. But they’re the only way to get all this stuff, and it’s no good getting pissy about it, because they’re still going to control everything whether you like it or not”.

Which begs the question: at what point do we stand up and say “hang on, I don’t need this, and you can’t keep doing what you’re doing?”

As the world of Feed deteriorates, so do the people. Physically, their bodies decay – the severity of which is concealed through excellent media campaigns making it “cool” to have lesions. Emotionally, they struggle to express themselves as society gradually loses the ability to construct meaning through language.

Scared yet? Then you should probably get your hands on the book I’ve chosen as my Best Read Ever, instead.

The Red Tree by Shaun Tan

As readers, we talk about books that hooked us with the first sentence, and as writers, we talk about books that got us writing. But as humans, it is the books that change our perception of the world that we remember most clearly. When I read this book, my world didn’t just stop for a moment; my world whirred, changed, and clicked.

Over the course of his career to date, Shaun Tan has worked on over a dozen illustrated books, each of which is a work of art in its own right. Often dealing with themes of displacement and apathy, Tan’s books have a beautiful ability to reveal the reflection of a part of the reader’s soul on each page. The lack of controlled, prescriptive narrative in The Red Tree ensures every person can find their own unique meaning nestled between the covers.

The Red Tree is about depression, feeling alone, and finding hope. On his website, Tan explains that the “nameless young girl appears in every picture, a stand-in for ourselves; she passes helplessly through many dark moments, yet ultimately finds something hopeful at the end of her journey”.

Depression hardly seems to be an appropriate topic for a children’s book, but it opens a dialogue about feeling sad, feeling lonely, or just feeling a bit more down than usual. The sooner we talk about these feelings and give permission for them to exist, the sooner we can accept them as part of our nature. We don’t have to be happy all the time, and that’s OK.

Reading The Red Tree altered my world; it challenged how I saw my own emotions, and the way I treated myself as a consequence.

“The red tree may bloom, but it will also die, so nothing is absolute or definite; there needs to be an accurate reflection of real life, as something that is continuously in search of resolution”. (Shaun Tan)

Some days, I have what I call “red tree days”. There are days when I feel like I, too, am trapped in a bottle on a distant shore, and I need to search for a little red leaf to remind me that it’s OK to feel like this sometimes.

Because, somewhere, there’s a red tree waiting just for me, right when I need it.


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4 thoughts on “Best and Worst: Finding (a Red Tree at) the End of the World

  1. I totally agree with the notion of reading as an experience. Time and place has a big bearing on how much I enjoy a novel, as I discovered when re-reading some books that I loved first time round but less so the second.

    It’s funny that you mention reading Ulysses in St Stephen’s Green; one of my goals is to read it as I travel around the city (I’m living in Dublin at the moment) and since place is so intrinsic to this novel in particular, I think it would really add to the experience. Nice post!

    • You must! I was in Dublin for Bloomsday in 2010. Due to a lack of planning on my part I couldn’t get involved in all of the activities, but I still had a great time! I definitely want to go back with an action plan so I can join in the festivities properly. Did you know the Guinness Brewery has a 360 degree view of Dublin and on the windows are quotes from Joyce’s books positioned accurately over the relevant locations? Oh, I love Dublin!

  2. Pingback: Best and Worst Reads | dodging commas

  3. The Red Tree sounds like a very good book. 🙂
    And yes, time and place plays a huge role in the reading experience. Since moving to France, I’ve not enjoyed historical fiction as much I used to and have started to enjoy reading books set in this day and age.

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