Review Details

Review type: Book

Title: The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness

Author: Matt Ottley

Publisher: One Tentacle Publishing

Release date: 1st May 2023

The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness

Reviewed by: Sarah Deeming

Other details: Hardback £18.09

The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness by Matt Ottley

Sarah Deeming

The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness follows a boy through a journey with mental illness. It’s not just a book but a multi-media work of art combining words, pictures and music, which is designed to be experienced in combination for the full effect. The story starts with the unnamed character’s birth and the joys that come with that, tempered by the realisation that he experiences the world differently from others due to a tree growing inside him. The tree’s flower was ecstasy, and the fruit was sadness, but doctors gave the boy medication to prevent the tree from fruiting and flowering. The story focuses on an episode where the medication isn’t strong enough to stop the tree from fruiting and flowering, and he goes in on himself. The battle between the highs and lows of mental illness and the unbearable burden of carrying on consumes him. But it is also a story of hope as the boy returns to the world and finds his family and loved ones still there.

I read a lot of graphic novels and manga, and the best are the ones where the pictures do the heavy lifting, and this is the case here. You could read this story without the words and understand the main character’s struggles. The detail is intense and lavish and designed to linger over, taking everything in and understanding the meaning behind the surface image. There are themes linking pictures together, such as the ones of the boy in the first stages of diagnosing his condition, which reminded me of a Banksy image. But others make me think of classical Renaissance art, like the wordless double-spread page of a flying lizard metamorphosising into a flying cow, and when we meet the Queen of Here, I thought of Alice in Wonderland with the Queen of Hearts trying to hide her grotesquery behind pretty words and lavish ceremony. It is a luscious mix of pictures, and each one is an experience.

One of my favourite images is a series of 3 double-page spreads where the boys see a beautiful tree with a thousand lanterns hanging like fruit and lighting the tree up from the inside. On the next page, he tries to touch it, but the tree withers up, and he is consumed with hatred for himself. We go from a lush scene of greens and blues, pinks and yellows, to a sparse image of a withered tree root and the screaming boy in greys and blues. He is disfigured with an elongated mouth and hands as he screams in despair. Then, on the next double-page spread, the boy is running away, still disproportioned, across a baron landscape, his feet leaving giant footprints on the ground. It resonated with me because, in the midst of a mental health breakdown, we can judge ourselves destructively and negatively.

The colour scheme is also worth mentioning here because there is a different scheme for different parts of the book. In the beginning, in the bleak external world, everything appears muted or in sepia shades. When we move to his internal world, there are colours more magnificent than the external world, and when we return to the outside world at the end, we return to the muted sepia colours. It’s as if the boy can only experience colour when trapped by his disorder, and that is poignant in itself.

All the above makes this a wonderful book, but having an accompanying soundtrack with a woman narrating elevates The Tree above other books that take a close-up look at mental health disorders. The music is composed by Matt Ottley with guest composition by Alf Demasi and performed by the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra. It is a 50-minute orchestral piece broken into different stages to represent the character’s journey. I had already read the book twice before sitting down to listen to the music, so I found I was able to concentrate on the music. However, I had the book, too, so I could refer to it if needed. Each piece of music works well with the pages it was designed for, with hard, jagged sounds when the boy is struggling and sharp bursts when the tree inside him consumes him. My favourite panels with the tree mentioned above had a choir accompanying the orchestra, creating a revered mood to reflect how much this tree means to the boy and his subsequent agony when the tree withers at his touch. Having this music meant I didn’t just read the story; I experienced it.

The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness’s author, Matt Ottley, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at a young age, and this story represents his struggle. It is sensitively written, with highs and lows and, most importantly, hope. As the discourse around mental health continues, The Tree of Ecstasy and Unbearable Sadness is an important addition to the discussion in breaking prejudices and helping people understand one another.

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