Healing and Personal Meaning
December 16, 2011
Danny Fahey, The Tree Singer, Perth: Dragonfall Press, 2011
Reviewed by Neralie Hoadley
The Tree Singer by Danny Fahey, is a publication that resists easy categorisation. For this reader it was an exploratory venture in terms both of the type of story and its electronic delivery (my first eBook). In both cases the experiment was rewarded.
I am a new-comer to fantasy as a literary genre and made the mistake of repeatedly trying to understand this interesting book through the lens of another story-telling style. At first I found myself reading The Tree Singer as a fable. I tuned into the way Fahey uses the fairy-tale timelessness to speak about a community finding healing by moving through despair towards hope. In the opening pages, twelve year old Jacob is suffering with ‘the sickness’, an unspecified plague that has already killed many in his small fishing village and left the rest living in a state of fear, grief and impotent anger. Jacob meets a mysterious stranger, Simon, who imbues him with a wondrous sense that life has possibilities outside his poor stricken home. Jacob finds he can suddenly imagine his own future as a maker of lovely musical instruments, flutes, even though he has never played one. Simon is a healer who uses the laying on of his beautiful hands to bring things to right, to remind creatures both human and non-human of their deep natures so that they may fulfill themselves. Some of the writing in this section of the book is quite lyrical as it allows the reader to imagine the mysterious forces that allow the stunted garden to thrive, the fish to return, the mad to be made steady, the grieving to learn to look for what is present rather than absent, and for the talented to honour their skills. There is a lovely purity in the way Fahey writes of the power of affirming life and hope. It does not have the self-conscious artifice of popular modern fables such as The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Jacob, the hero, continues to grow and develop his talent, becoming a master flute maker of increasing renown, until the allure of the city draws him away from the simplicity of village life and love.
As the story progresses it becomes clear that a ‘New-Age’ tinged tale is not Fahey’s objective. He foreshadows a great rebalancing whereby the healer might be found to be at odds with the community and one who is denounced by his young disciple, Jacob. At this point I found it necessary to reassess my reading. I was raised on CS Lewis and as a child I enjoyed the Narnia tales, which use religious allegory as their bread and butter. So when young Jacob denies knowing the great healer Simon three times within hours of entering the city of Cathel, I was in familiar territory. The cock did not crow but the scene was nevertheless set for a martyrdom and possible resurrection. This does, in fact, come to pass. Jacob is both the denier and the betrayer, resulting in Simon’s death. These two biblical names, Simon and Jacob, stand out amongst the array of others – Justoff, Lynstre, Brannon, Thomkins – and the biblical allusions continue in theme and plot.
The city of Cathel is depicted as unhealable: too large and too corrupt for goodness to flourish, so conflict and disease are unleashed. The city is devastated. The healer is denounced and attacked. Jacob limps home encumbered by the shame and guilt that is born of his betrayal of the beloved Simon. He hopes for love and forgiveness from his childhood sweetheart, Maddie, who has been waiting at home for Jacob to return to marry her. But the dying Simon has beaten Jacob to Maddie’s comforting arms. Maddie rejects Jacob as a traitor to goodness and loyalty.
Here the tale takes a Gothic turn. Jacob becomes an outcast, surviving on fish and bitterness in a rough shed set apart from the village. Jacob watches village life follow its course from afar, and, like Mary Shelley’s monster from Frankenstein, is simultaneously attracted and repelled by the life he cannot be part of. His self-loathing makes him more and more monstrous, to the point where he makes a precious child suffer for the sin of his innocence and hope. Scenes of Jacob’s gratuitous cruelty to the boy, though the boy seems ultimately to be unharmed, are rather disturbing to read.
A lonely death as a twisted outcast seems Jacob’s fate. However, Jacob finds redemption in forgiveness. The quest for redemption is explicit here. Yes, this seems to me to be a very, very Christian story. His first love, Maddie, forgives him for his betrayal and thus shows him that his life is not over. Jacob is able to break free of his self-imposed bonds and explores the world and his talents anew. This would appear to be a sufficient happy ending. But, Simon is reborn also, and the cycle of healing is complete.
As I have said, Fahey’s book is my first foray into fantasy writing so it may be that I am completely missing the point by reading it through the lens of the fiction with which I am familiar. Or perhaps that is the point of fantasy: the reader is able to engage imaginatively so that the story might take on a more personal meaning.