I suggest you open this mystery novel the way you open a beautifully wrapped gift: with heightened perceptions and the tiniest bit of doubt. What if it’s not my size? Most mysteries (correct me if I’m wrong) are not stylized, legend-inspired stories that have bigamous murders occurring two centuries apart.
But open the book. You will find yourself competently led back and forth between centuries by the charming central character, Julia Warren, as she begins researching her novel from Pringle’s Bookshop in London. Researching leads to detecting, and before you can say “Green Man,” you and she are deep in the parallel goings-on of 1783 and 1927.
In its prose, artistic structure, and graphic silhouettes scattered throughout the text, Greenwood Tree (Grey Cells Press, 413 pages) is as winsome as the green world Julia encounters when she travels from London to her Aunt Isobel’s country estate in Lichfield. There she encounters not only crime, but pagan forces that, century after century, insert themselves into everyday life. You won’t find brutality for brutality’s sake, but you will find evil.
In and around the unsolved murders, the Green Man of Celtic lore, creator and bearer of the life force, vies with the moist green slime of the Imp who delights in turning butterflies back into larva; light back into darkness. The savage vegetation in the Gronny Patch, a rumbling, quaking pocket of earth near Lichfield, attracts the Imp and Green Man in their timeless struggle for dominance.
Don’t try to remember every character and every character’s name. The writing will carry you along and you will know all that you need to know. Julia Warren, both in Pringle’s Bookshop and the country estate, will keep you centered. She will show you how to jump centuries. Sleepwalking; dreams; a mesmerizing face exuding tangled green growth; poachers caught in the clinging roots, limbs, and vines of the Gronny Patch; and the Green Man who appears in unexpected places; all will capture and enthrall you.
I asked Bustles Lloyd how the book came to be. Did she think about the folk-lore first? The mystery? “There was in a sense a mosaic of images and ideas,” she says, “that came floating in—I cannot remember in what order, either, but rather like Julia snatching at her scraps of dreams and memories. I think they came tumbling in all at the same time, opening up a sequence of yet more images and characters, which I simply felt had to be sewn together somehow into a tapestry of sorts. I think probably the mystery element was the key point on which I could start building…. The folk-lore or Green Man was a welcome extra, probably the key element through which I was able to bind the past to present.”
I’ve been interested to learn that the Green Man’s image appears almost surreptitiously in most Christian cathedrals. Robert Peett, the novel’s editor, says, “What is interesting is that in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon culture, the image seems to have been settled by Christianity—all those images on churches. But then, like Buddhism, early Christianity was adept at absorbing preexisting religious motifs and festivals—sometimes domesticating them.”
What gives this multi-century mystery shape and structure? The parallel crimes, of course, but stylistically we are always being pulled into an ordered, even musical narrative. Like music, an art form ordered by rhythm and repeated patterns, Lloyd has employed rhythm and repetition to good advantage. (Graphically, too, by the way. Conversations are sometimes printed on the page as if they were dramatic dialogue from a stage play, separating pointed chatter from the ordinary run of prose. And I’ve already touched upon the author’s marvelous black-and-white silhouettes that punctuate—shall I say orchestrate?—the flow of the story.)
“Mrs. Rawnsley:…‘and how were the Wordlys dressed?’ “
Mrs. Glass: ‘Why, in shoes, and clothes and wigs, Mrs. Rawnsley—how else should they be dressed?’“
Mrs. Rawnsley: ‘But the Wordlys, Mrs. Glass, are such grand people, and I like to hear about the latest fashions.’”
Sometimes you have a chorus.:
“Sir Trouser-Pockets: ‘It will come to a call-out, surely.’“
Lady Withered: ‘A scandal.’“
Mrs. Lucrative: ‘A disgrace.’“
Mr. Lucrative: ‘Where’s the punch bowl?’”
You have rhythmic elements embedded in the text:
“‘I have been such an awful, awful fool…poor Eddie…I’ve been perfectly beastly to him…’ (Anne over breakfast with Julia).“‘ ….but Simeon can be so very persuasive…and he has such a way with him…’ (Anne over lunch with Julia).“And finally, Anne at tea-time (with Julia): ‘…it was after we’d stopped for the third time, and he’d been getting into a filthy temper over the engine—he asked me, out of the blue, how much money I’d brought with me—I hadn’t thought to bring more than what was already in my bag, and he said ‘that won’t last long—how much can you get hold of over the next few days’?”
Here is some more music:
“‘I did not see a butterfly turn back into a slug. I did not see a full-grown man with muddied lace cuffs and stockings consumed in slime…. I did not see the same man fade into the woods/tree…. I did not see these things…. I did not see these things….’“‘And yet,’ prompted his companion, ‘you saw something….’”
Though perhaps not strictly a structural element of the novel, the shimmering, flexible point of view from, say, a rabbit to the reader, then back to a rabbit or a character, creates a world in which logic sometimes gives way to a primitive kind of thinking, perhaps not so different from the ancients who believed in the Imp and the Green Man; a world that cannot be controlled by well-organized Julia Warren and prim Aunt Isobel.
I might have wished for more individualized characters so that I could feel not only excited admiration for Lloyd’s writing, but emotional interest in victims, murderers, and the cast of colorful characters. As an example, the cameo appearance of a mentally disabled child who provides a crucial clue arouses my tenderest feelings. More of this in the next book, please!
Everywhere in the novel is verve and inventiveness. Charm flows from every—do books have pores? This one does. Greenwood Tree is alive.
And yet, it dreams. It sleepwalks. At the end of the novel, Lloyd leaves us with Oberon’s poetry:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.