I know a book shouldn’t be judged by its title—nonetheless its cover—but Kevin Ansbro’s The Fish That Climbed a Tree had me hooked from the beginning. Admittedly, my enjoyment of his earlier novel, Kinnara, plus this one’s title and cover, had me most intrigued. The Fish That Climbed a Tree has everything I look for in literature: well-written characters, a fast-paced plot, poetry embedded in the prose, with more than a little Magic Realism thrown in the mix. The world crafting—or perhaps more aptly ‘after-world’ crafting—is marvelous. A certain measure of credibility is seen in Ansbro’s depiction of both Paradise and in one character’s struggle to get there, making it none too difficult to suspend disbelief. I hope it’s not a spoiler to tell you that Henry’s father, Reverend Ulysses Drummond, becomes said ‘fish’ in his attempt to reunite with his wife, Florence, who’s entered Paradise long before he does.
Henry, too, does a little metaphorical tree climbing of his own in the Earthly realm, as he deals with life as best as any ten year-old is able to, following the murders of his parents in their home. Henry becomes the hero of the tale, despite his bumbling nature and having to deal with Sebastian, an arrogant (and in all-ways awful) roommate—and later, when his parents double murder case gets reopened. Despite everything, Henry meets several kind and caring people along the way and shows much promise as an aspiring author, though he is warned: “The business is already saturated with writers who wouldn’t know syntax from a Tampax.”
There’s a humorous streak running through the narrative, despite many nail biting moments which leave you wondering whether or not Henry and his girlfriend, Amber, are soon to rejoin his parents. One of the many allusions which add to the levity is noted when “Ulysses found himself hopelessly adrift…” and he “smelled Paradise in the way that a mariner smells landfall.” Due to the enchanting descriptions of a Paradise with no electronics or vehicles, save a really cool teleportation device, I began to lose my own fear of death. Also, I worried less about the fates of Henry and Amber, feeling reasonably convinced of eternal life: everything will somehow work out for them – in one place, or another. (Still, there are some pretty gruesome details about their torture by the two horrific villains, Yuri and Pascal.)
More than merely a superbly written tale, this novel becomes a metaphysical inquiry, turning the notion of a conventional God on its head. Paradise isn’t a simple Utopian concept; there’s an elaborate architecture to Ansbro’s fictional account of the afterlife. Voltaire has become an angel, there to guide Ulysses into Paradise; otherwise, Ulysses could wind up living out eternity as a ghost. The likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Elvis, among others, are able to be in several places in Paradise simultaneously, and while it mirrors some aspects of the Earthly plane, and there is no need of currency, as “natural resources across the 196 continents were inexhaustible.”