Animalistic, thrilling, and intense, Tim Binding’s Beneath the Trees of Eden contains a plethora of beautiful and complicated relationships, set against the real and raw portrayal of death. Our characters skirt the fringes of society and live on their own terms – but at what cost? Binding challenges us to reconsider what ‘Eden’ really is, and the ugly sacrifices that come with achieving ultimate so-called salvation.
Our journey along the branching motorways of England begins when young Alice meets the much older Louis, and their whirlwind relationship pulls the couple all over the country, as they assume various, exciting identities. They follow a life governed by only their rules, yet this shifts when Alice becomes pregnant with their son, Chester. Following his birth, the couple find it hard to adhere to the trappings of ‘normal’ life. With Chester’s arrival, their own Eden is disrupted, especially as Chester grows and begins to question his parent’s lifestyle. Ultimately, Alice and Louis cannot live a life without their constant search for salvation, and certain decisions pull them back on the road and this chaotic, muddled existence, moving through cars quickly and effortlessly.
This wasn’t an easy read for me; Beneath the Trees of Eden immediately opens with a high level of intensity, which only continues to build as the novel progresses. We’re instantly thrust into the fast-paced, outlaw-like lifestyle of Alice and Louis, which is peppered with zany characters and exciting tangents along the way.
Binding achieves this impassioned feeling through a number of devices – the pacing is quick and unforgiving; the religious and cult-like references are present yet not overdone; and the return to the primal nature of humanity gives the novel a horroresque tone, harking back to Faulkner, especially when it comes to the approaches towards death in a head on manner.
The energetic nature of the novel instantly drew me in, and heightened my awareness of the world on my very own doorstep. I found myself gradually developing a new wonderment for the ‘road’, in both its literal and symbolic sense. While they open up so many opportunities, and their far-reaching nature provides a continued sense of comfort for Alice, Louis and their like minded vagabond friends, roads are still a constraint in themselves, allowing us to travel only in certain ways. Their formation is described eloquently and uniquely by Binding, and allows for a different perspective away from the tarmac we take for granted. Yet I also couldn’t help but fear their suffocating nature, especially as the couple continue on their journey and dire sacrifices are made.
The various relationships within the novel are what drives the narrative. Binding does a fantastic job of showing not only how these characters become tethered to the road, but also how they work through their growing reliance on each other. Their freedom isn’t as freeing as first thought, and, despite their best efforts, some pulls are just too strong to deny.
Of course, Alice and Louis are the main and most dynamic partnership in the novel. I fell instantly in love with the pair – her wild, inquisitive nature, and the huge heart she undeniably has. His quiet, unassuming personality, always moving and full of wisdom. The couple shouldn’t work together – and maybe in the grand scheme of things they don’t, not really. Yet their beautiful duality is the basis for the entire story.
I also loved the character of Angela, Chesters on-off girlfriend, again an enigmatic force. Her sassiness masked a great insecurity, and although Chester initially looked to her for guidance on how to navigate the ‘real world’, it soon becomes clear that she needs him just as much.
This act of reliance is mirrored when it comes to the relationship between Alice and her parents too, specifically her father. She returns to the family home multiple times, eventually succumbing to her father’s caregiving duties when she cannot look after Louis alone. I loved this confused and delicate interaction. The scenes where she is at home are some of the most vulnerable, and some of my favourites. There’s a real rawness to the tetherment that Binding conveys.
Chester’s own complex relationship with his parents is another that is full of delicate intricacies. Though it is a sad parting, it’s not unexpected from Alice and Louis. The abandonment of their son felt necessary by this point, and I found myself questioning whether the wild, winding aspect of the roads would have ever allowed for a traditional, functional relationship.
The ultimate demise of Louis and the crumbling of their lifestyle as the years roll on, highlighted the true unsustainable nature of their values. They are at war with the changing world around them – the roads are evolving, there are new laws to abide by, and they are unaccommodating for the pair and their quest for freedom.
Binding approaches this aspect of the book in a nostalgic and beautiful way. While I did feel confused at points and occasionally lost my way, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was one of the novel’s intentions. This haze was part of its overall appeal. I was left searching for clarity, and then felt relieved when I was placed on the right path.
Beneath the Trees of Eden offers a magical, transformative way of analysing England’s roads – many of which I grew up near – and what it means to live a life roaming them. It helped to provide a deeper purpose to their existence, something I didn’t know I wanted. It gave a history and personality to those unassuming slabs of grey.
Beneath the Trees of Eden is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.
Tim Binding is the acclaimed author of In the Kingdom of Air, A Perfect Execution, Island Madness, On Ilkley Moor, Anthem, Man Overboard, and The Champion and the children’s book Sylvie and the Songman. He lives in Kent with his wife and daughter.
A publisher for over thirty years, Tim Binding worked in a senior editorial position at both Picador and Penguin. In his time he has worked with a huge range of authors, ranging from Booker Prize-winning novelists to bestselling science fiction writers. He also wrote with Simon Nye The Last Salute, a TV sitcom which ran for two series on BBC1 featuring a 1960s AA patrol team. He also unwittingly helped write Bob Dylan’s blurb for his masterful autobiography, No Direction Home, of which he is inordinately proud.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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