The Meat Tree by Gwyneth Lewis.
The Meat Tree is the fourth in the series of contemporary retellings of stories from the medieval Welsh story cycle The Mabinogion commissioned and published by Seren Books. See my reviews of the other titles in the series here and here.
Gwyneth Lewis is an interesting author: firstly a poet, she has written a book-length poem about a person’s experiences in hospital which blends matters scientific, mythical, and spiritual – A Hospital Odyssey sounds rather wonderful and I’ve added it to my wishlist. Then she’s written a prize-winning and insightful non-fiction book about that black dog – Sunbathing in the rain: a cheerful book about depression. So she is well-placed to take on one of the stranger tales in The Mabinogion – that of Blodeuwedd, the woman made from flowers.
The original is a very complex tale of transformations, curses, deceit, rape and incest! Brothers get transformed into deer for raping a virgin, and then they are turned into boars, and finally wolves – each time a male and female pair – and they have offspring which get turned back into humans. A woman is made out of flowers as a bride for son cursed never to have a human wife, but she falls for another and tricks him.
Lewis retains the story of the original but wraps it up within a science fiction setting. An ageing wreck inspector and his young female apprentice land on an ancient abandoned spaceship to find out what happened to its crew. They discover that the ship’s virtual reality system has a medieval game loaded and hoping it will shed light they start to play. Not knowing the story, they take on the various key roles including the brothers who get transformed and mate – it’s a challenge for them to remain objective. They take a break, but the deeper they get into the story and the more roles they experience, the more they get involved until they realise what happened to the original crew …
The narrative is told entirely in paragraphs alternating between the voices of Campion and Nona, whether they be in conversation, recording their investigation, their personal video diaries or just their internal thoughts. At first Campion is training Nona and she is rebelling against being told what to do by the old codger, but gradually their relationship gets closer and it transforms too to a more paternal one as their roles change.
Once we got into the VR game, I was totally hooked by this bizarre tale, but initially I wasn’t convinced about the setting. Maybe I’ve read or seen too many tales of weird goings on in spaceships, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem which is truly brilliant comes to mind, but also ironically the Red Dwarf episode where they get stuck in a VR game.
I can’t think of a better way of representing this particular story however without going the full-fantasy route – ultimately this way does work. (7/10)
P.S. I love the covers of these books – all with a tree representing the branches of the Mabinogion. They’re nicely produced too with quality paper and wraparound soft covers.
This post was republished into its original place in my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive
Source: Review copy – thank you.
Gwyneth Lewis, The Meat Tree (Seren, 2010) paperback original, 192 pages.