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.

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