April 2014

Arts & Letters

Craig Sherborne’s ‘Tree Palace’

By Catherine Ford
Text; $29.99

On radio some years ago, Craig Sherborne, then the author of two unsparing memoirs and a pitiless autobiographical novel, was asked how he managed the relationships in his life when he’d mined them as he had in his books. “I’m not terribly gregarious,” he said. “I don’t have a great many friends.” “Well,” spluttered the interviewer, “have you ever asked yourself why?”

The memoirs, Sherborne insisted, were “love letters”; they’d “preserved [his parents] in amber”. His novel, 2011’s The Amateur Science of Love, offered him a way to plumb his fictional self – and that of his ex-wife, who died of breast cancer – in a way that wasn’t “like looking at a human like me. It’s like looking at a specimen and investigating far more deeply.”

But in his new novel, Tree Palace, Sherborne has humanised his approach, bringing a more merciful, third-person narration to something kinder than specimen inspection. Shane Whittaker and his girlfriend, Moira Duggan, and Moira’s children, Zara Bunce and Rory Spinks, are illiterate people, itinerants making do in country Victoria. Along with Shane’s ruin of a brother, Midge, they are in hiding from a world that has no interest in finding them.

Taking up residence on an abandoned property just outside of Barleyville, a fictional town on the Wimmera Mallee plains – “they weren’t blacks or anything, they just lived that way” – the little clan of squatters and thieves tries to get by. The men raid empty homesteads on farms now owned by Chinese investors, stripping them of their heritage booty. The women are left at home, stuck in an intergenerational web that threatens to bring all of them down, including a newborn baby.

Sherborne’s pastoral feels patchy at times, with dialogue so curt and blunt that it is often just this side of enjoyable. The fastidious physical details of place and weather drag on the book’s emotional momentum at crucial points, and there are holes in the free indirect style he uses. Derelict Midge, called on to provide a character reference, reflects, without irony, on his lack of “community standing”. Shane, doing time in prison, muses unconvincingly on being “apart and disallowed”. But if Sherborne ever draws close to a Tim Winton–style picaresque, he keeps well clear of that writer’s hymnals of sentiment.

It pays to read Sherborne’s novels in sequence, not only to witness the evolution of a very good writer but also because of a remarkable development inside them. The female breast, its functions and symbolism – both profoundly important in these novels – undergoes a moving, hope-filled transformation.

Catherine Ford

Catherine Ford is a freelance journalist. Her books include NYC and Dirt.


View Edition

From the front page

Image of former Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate speaking before a Senate inquiry today. Image via ABC News

Holgate strikes back

Scott Morrison humiliated the wrong woman

Up the river

Hope is running dry in the Murray–Darling Basin

Green house effect

Joost Bakker’s vision for sustainable housing is taking root

Serenity

Give us not serenity but a sense of urgency in the face of catastrophic climate change


In This Issue

A funny thing happened on the way to Adelaide

A car accident brings an unlikely collection of people together

Karl Ove Knausgaard. © Anders Hansson

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘Boyhood Island’

The third volume of the epic autobiographical novel ‘My Struggle’

Harry Seidler in 1997. © Michelle Mossop / Fairfax Syndication

Helen O’Neill’s ‘Harry Seidler: A Singular Vision’ and Vladimir Belogolovsky’s ‘Harry Seidler: Lifework’

The man who revolutionised Australian architecture

The triumphalism of Tony Abbott

The Liberals' winner-takes-all political payback


More in Arts & Letters

The death of Yokununna: ‘Return to Uluru’

Mark McKenna explores Australia’s history of violence, dispossession and deception through one tragic incident

The lightness of unbearable being: ‘Double Blind’

Edward St Aubyn tackles familiar themes – desire, drug use, psychoanalysis – via a fresh suite of characters

Amorality tale: ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

Told from an unexpected perspective, Shaka King’s film is one of the best recent-historical dramas

Girls don’t cry: Arlo Parks and Phoebe Bridgers

Two young musicians spark the old double standard of judging female artists who demonstrate their pain


More in Noted

‘On the Line’ by Joseph Ponthus

Poetry is found in the processing plants of Brittany

‘Clarice Beckett: The Present Moment’

This AGSA exhibition goes a long way to redress an Australian artist’s meagre reputation

Image of ‘The Committed’

‘The Committed’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The philosophical thriller sequel to ‘The Sympathizer’ sends its Vietnamese protagonists to the Paris underworld

Image of Black Country, New Road’s ‘For the first time’

‘For the first time’ by Black Country, New Road

The debut from the latest British Art School Band delivers perfect pop with arch lyrics that owe a debt to Jarvis Cocker


Read on

Serenity

Give us not serenity but a sense of urgency in the face of catastrophic climate change

Image of Cătălin Tolontan in Collective.

Bitter pill: ‘Collective’

This staggering documentary exposes institutionalised corruption in Romanian hospitals

All things considered: Emily Maguire’s ‘Love Objects’

The Australian writer’s latest novel portrays hoarding with an acute understanding of the deeply human desire to connect

Image of Antara by Betty Kuntiwa Pumani. © The artist, Mimili Maku and Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne 2021

Held in common: ‘The National’ at the MCA

Foregrounding women’s practice, this exhibition of contemporary Australian art proposes a poetics of inclusion