She has problems in her professional life; investigating the murder of a single local scientist, the policewoman has discovered what may be a string of related homicides.
And she has a problem in her garden. A persistent weed puts her husband in the hospital, and launches Dora into a brand new life.
Sheri Tepper’s The Family Tree starts like a gritty novel of a woman-on-the-edge or a murder-mystery, then twines off in unexpected directions, like rootlets seeking moisture, or vines exploring a wall. When Dora Henry encounters the strangely-responsive weed, she leaves the well-trodden path of her life and enters a dark forest. Just as we are accepting this single weird element, Tepper vaults us to a new story, the tale of Nassifeh, a sweet Ponjic teenager called “Opalears” by the other girls in the Sultan’s harem. She masquerades as a boy named Nassif to accompany the Scuinic son of the Sultan, Prince Sahir, on his quest to visit the sages of St. Weel and save “all posterity.”
Along the way, they encounter Sitidic, Pheledic, Armakfatidi and Onchiki people, and we learn that this is a future Earth. Some people (like the Dire Duke Fahsahd) have descended to cannibalism, but others are identifiable by their enduring “national” qualities. The Ponjic people, like Nassif herself and Prince Izakar of Palmia, who has access to one of the few remaining libraries, may be “Joosh” or perhaps “Mericans”—at least Izakar thinks so, based on his reading. Armakfatidi may once have been “Frynch”; they are touchy, but very good cooks, and their language is described as “grummeling.” The Scuinic people like Prince Sahir are probably “Ahraban,” the Pheleds like Sahir’s gracefully powerful bodyguard Soaz may be “Zhapanees.”
Tree alternates between the quest to St. Weel in the future Earth, and Dora Henry’s search for balance in her life. Gradually Dora’s world becomes more like Nassif’s; her weed amplifies itself into instant forests, and the trees exhibit more and more intelligence. Dora discovers that trees will consume garbage and guard her bicycle. Nassif and her fellow questers find “firewood trees” that grow dry, loose limbs below arms-reach to make building a fire simple. Dora learns that the trees are absorbing empty rooms and houses and destroying used-car lots. Nassif and company encounter walking trees that attack anyone who tries to chop them down.
Eventually the future and present stories combine, as Nassif and her people travel to the past, and Dora discovers that both the disaster faced by the people of the future and the dilemmas posed by her husband and job are rooted in the same 30-year-old crime. Dora, Nassif, and their friends must work together to solve the puzzle before their time runs out.
Tepper’s talent for creating likeable characters is given full rein in this delightful fantasy. As with all Tepper’s novels, a strong thematic message underscores (but never overwhelms) the enjoyable tale. Her multiple story lines work together like instruments in a symphony, each playing a slightly different score, building to a crescendo that will take you by surprise. We all need more music like this in our lives.
When you finish reading, you’ll want to start again from the first page, just to catch where the twists came in, knowing now what you didn’t know the first time. The true beauty of Sheri Tepper’s work is that the second reading is no less enjoyable than the first.
Sheri S. Tepper is the science-fiction pseudonym of B.J. Oliphant, who writes mysteries under her own name and also as A.J. Orde.