The horrors of lynching: The Trees, by Percival Everett, reviewed

The Trees

Percival Everett

Influx Press, pp. 335, £9.99

Percival Everett’s 22nd novel The Trees was that rare thing on this year’s Booker shortlist: a genre novel. Only which genre? Crime is its first claimant – the bickering Bryants of Money, Mississippi having stumbled straight off an Elmore Leonard page. Then it’s horror – the obscenity of the first Bryant death rival the grisliest of Stephen King. Then, with the flummoxing custody-elusion of the black suspect, it’s a locked room mystery. Then, with the arrival of two wisecracking black cops from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, blaxploitation takes over.

But the book is more than just an exercise in genre hopping. Money, Mississippi was where 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. Carolyn Bryant was the woman whose false accusations led to that outrage. Now Everett is here to dispense the justice never done, though this is no Tarantino revenge fantasy. It is an urgent, serious reckoning, only cloaked in comedy and splatter.

Talismanic of this is Mama Z, a 105-year-old woman whose father was lynched in 1913. Her response has been to construct an archive of every lynching to take place in America since, and this leads to a powerful middle section where the names of those dead are listed – page after page of them. For ‘when the killing is slow and spread over 100 years, no one notices. Where there are no mass graves, no one notices’.

Lists and genre games aside, The Trees is conventionally told by Everett’s standards. There are no novels-within-novels here (Erasure), no appearances by Everett himself (I Am Not Sidney Poitier; Percival Everett by Virgil Russell), and it all unspools in a cool, pulpy third person that offers no impediment to story comprehension .

The problem is the lack of story. With the mystery of the vanishing black man, Everett has created a puzzle too brilliant for his dumb characters to solve, and there is little narrative momentum. As late as page 274, characters are still saying, dumbly: ‘There is something really strange going on.’ Even so, the short chapters, ping-ponging perspectives and crackling dialogue keep you reading, and this loyalty is rewarded by a bracing finale that deals a brutal reality check to the notion of ‘post-racial America’. This is not Everett’s best novel, but it is almost certainly his most important.