❉ Lisa Bowerman remains both a fantastic narrator and a fantastic Bernice, writes Kevin Burnard.
Big Finish productions are, at least as of a couple years ago, the second-largest producer of audio drama content in the UK, behind Radio 4. But one thing they haven’t made much of, until recently, is audiobooks. That much is changing now. The Tree of Life is the seventh original Bernice Summerfield novel Big Finish has brought to the audio medium now, and it continues to be a treat to hear these old books made accessible for new audiences.
The book itself, in this case, is one of the less ambitious of the line. The plot revolves around space archaeologist Bernice Summerfield summoned by an old school acquaintance to investigate strange happenings on Tollip’s World, a jungle planet primarily inhabited by insects and lovingly described fungal infections. Bernice gets as ever drawn into investigating the secret history of the planet and what happened to all other life there while also facing off a corrupt corporate weapons operation. It’s all fairly standard ground for Benny to trek through, give or take a couple of new shenanigans and some framing squabbles about Benny’s status as a new mother.
It quickly becomes clear that the drama with the characters, in a cast spanning a hard-nosed military commander, a whiny nice guy, a comically deep-voiced petite woman, two entirely different men described as bears, some girl Bernice vaguely knew in high school, and several hamsters, takes a back seat to the conceptual workings of Tollip’s World. I’ll resist revealing much in the way of spoilers, but the plot becomes significantly more complicated and interesting at around the midpoint, with a new concept injected into the book that allows for some fairly wild and occasionally even poignant moments. This builds to a fairly ambitious climax that aims to say some pretty big things about Bernice as a character and identity as a concept, though I think the book’s decision to hold off on some of these ideas as long as it does is detrimental to them landing. There’s just not quite enough time to fully get a feel for the emotional beats and thematic statements it wants to make.
The characters themselves, as I said, don’t get nearly as much to do. One character established early barely figures in until she pops up again for a punchline at the end, while another is sacrificed to plot mechanics and promptly killed off when no longer needed without any particular mourning from anyone. The characters that do stick around don’t change much, and nor do their relationships with each other. Benny is no closer to her missing acquaintance by the end, the hard-nosed military commander remains tough and gruff, and the nice guy continues to be basically the most irritating thing imaginable. But sometimes, it’s okay not to read a book for emotional depth. This is a book about walking you through a carefully constructed world of concepts, and they’re sufficiently wild and interesting to be worth spending a few hours with.
Bearing in mind that this is a book originally released in 2005, there are some elements that haven’t aged very well that bear mentioning. Most of that revolves around the aforementioned nice guy character, Pietro. The book vacillates on whether it considers him sweet or just plain creepy—both words probably come up in most scenes he features in—but ultimately, his journey builds to a bizarre and not particularly consensual sex scene played entirely for laughs. I actually had to replay it several times just to wrap my head around what I was hearing, and it left a very poor taste in my mouth after what had mostly been a perfectly fine way to spend several hours. I would hope it’s a beat people wouldn’t write into a Bernice Summerfield story 16 years later.
Ultimately, I would still recommend The Tree of Life. At around ten bucks for seven hours of content, it’s about as good a value for Big Finish content as you can get, and Lisa Bowerman remains both a fantastic narrator and a fantastic Benny. She never once phones it in, and always managed to hold my attention. That alone is worth the price of admission, let alone a crazy plot involving sentient trees, lightning caves, and hamster ghosts possessing naked women. That said, I would recommend checking out a few of the other books ahead of this one, especially The Squire’s Crystal and The Glass Prison. This is perfectly acceptable stuff on the whole, but it’s short of the gems we’ve seen are possible.
❉ Bernice Summerfield: The Tree of Life is now available to download from the Big Finish website for just £9.99. Click here to order exclusively from bigfinish.com.
❉ Kevin Burnard is a writer, filmmaker, and podcaster. He can usually be found watching TV and tie-in media, tweeting about TV and tie-in media at @scribblesscript, or frequently, both simultaneously. Backflips are sometimes involved.
All images courtesy Big Finish Productions.