Paperbacks: The Wild Trees, by Richard Preston

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The Independent Culture

This book is a strange combination of the utterly absorbing and the almost unreadable. Preston thrillingly conveys his passion for the world's tallest trees.

Californian redwoods can attain the height of a 36-storey building when they achieve full adulthood at the age of 800. Later in middle age, the tree loses its crown, which it replaces with new trunks. As a result, the tree becomes "a grove of redwoods in the air".

Preston brilliantly conveys the passion and expertise of the specialist climbers who probe this "vertical Eden" and the consequences of a high altitude mistake: "There was a deep wet boom when Hillery hit [the ground], mixed with a whooshing noise... from air driven from his lungs. Wallower was amazed to see a beautiful, sparking radiance expanding in a cloud around Kevin Hillery... He believed he had seen Hillery's soul leaving his body." For the most part, this is a singularly vivid and thrilling work, but when Preston takes us deep into the tangled problems of the climbers - "My dad has rejected. Man, he's cut me off. It's a crazy, mad world we're in" – the result is schmaltzy and toe-curling. Despite his obsession with redwoods, Preston evidently felt that these amazing plants were not sufficiently interesting for the general reader. It is a shame that his publisher did not prune The Wild Trees.