Strange poetry of lives entwined
Tree Palace By Craig Sherborne Text Publishing, 327pp, $29.99 A LARGE chandelier hangs from a tree in a paddock. Hoisted and roped there by two brothers, it swings in the late afternoon sun. The air around has “stopped breathing for the day’’; the sun sits ‘‘on a bronze tray’’. Dusk fills “the chandelier’s braids’’, tinting them amber. Beneath it, the brothers’ itinerant family gathers to digest this “meal for the eye’’, not speaking, as speaking might disturb its “crystal hush’’ and the slow sway of its dance.
From the tall tree adorned with the stolen antique comes poetry. One of the brothers, Shane, names the cluster of tent, caravan and abandoned hut under this strange ornament Tree Palace. Words often evade Craig Sherborne’s characters, but a kind of unlikely poetry does not.
In similar ways, Sherborne’s writing finds its grace in the odd and unexpected, and the rhythms of jagged lives. In this novel, his six protagonists are itinerants, or trants, who have settled in a place that becomes their tree palace in a new way in an exhilarating thwack of the novel’s tail. They circle society’s institutions — schools, medical care, the law and consumerism — with uneasy craft.
Shane’s partner Moira is at the novel’s heart. She had her first child, Zara, in her teens and is now grandmother to 15-year-old Mathew. Amid Sherborne’s study of unhoused domesticity, his portrait of Moira is powerful. She considers herself stupid because she is illiterate, but dons what she thinks of as her “cunning hat’’ to manage the life’s complexities.
As Moira mothers Mathew, aiming to encourage Zara to do so, she initiates a painful exchange between mother and daughter. Moira is waiting for Shane to be open to the baby she hopes to have with him. She experiences his prevarication as rejection and cruelty. Moira gives Zara contraceptive pills, and as a result finds herself infused by ‘‘the glow’’, a kind of inner vitality and radiance that causes her to lactate, and attracts another trant, Tubbsy, an exemplar of a creepy, acquisitive and conventional masculinity Shane, his brother Midge and Moira’s son Rory all struggle to evade.
This is Sherborne’s second novel, following The Amateur Science of Love (2011), award-winning memoirs Hoi Polloi (2005) and Muck (2007) and highly-regarded poetry, journalism and verse drama. In many ways, though, Tree Palace is the Melbourne writer’s first novel. The Amateur Science of Love reads as a bridge towards the fictive, firmly fixed to the shores of the autobiographical. In that work, the protagonist originates in unflinching and, at times, repellent self-portraiture.
In Tree Palace, Sherborne’s talents with narrative and poetry combine to produce a striking fiction. He catches the lilt and glitch of his character’s words and the rhythms of their thoughts. This produces fresh, syncopated prose, studded with the quirks, trips and slips of human speech. These reveal each character vividly, the patterns of language distinctive as fingerprints. Rory, at 14, meets his newborn nephew with affection and surprise, peering into the swaddling to say “hello and how you doing’’. He laughs at “the bald amount of hair on the skull’’ and starts speaking ‘‘in that way he did with no commas and no thoughts in a clear order’’. He asks his sister about being in hospital, conjuring only the pleasures of ‘‘getting waitered on and stuff’’.
Shane, on trial for burglary, imagines himself, archly, as a hero, Mr Admirable, because he has not implicated others. In his police cell, with the luxuries of lavatory, bed and meals, he
April 5-6, 2014 celebrates the thought of jail with an image of Mr Admirable on Holiday.
Moira can only speak of Zara’s initial rejection of Mathew obliquely, pushing unbearable thoughts into the second person: “When you have to take your own daughter’s baby and keep it by your side … When you fear harm might come to it … your stomach is cold and churning.’’ And in Midge, Shane’s odd and gentle brother, Sherborne captures places beyond words’ boundaries. When Midge first holds Mathew, ‘‘There were no words in him to make a sentence. This kind of holding was beyond language.’’
Around characters’ thoughts and actions, Sherborne crafts a magnificent landscape, where trees become ‘‘shadows of themselves and [huddle] together’’ breathing their ‘‘leafwhisper’’. He captures the poetry of the ordinary, such as a pair of trousers hanging on a clothesline with its ‘‘legs moving back and forth in the airstream like empty walking’’. Mathew’s skin feels to Moira ‘‘pearly smooth … more like water than flesh’’.
The subtlety and lack of evasion in Sherborne’s memoirs, and in The Amateur Science of Love, are often powerfully unsettling. Here, he applies this analysis to his characters’ emotional lives with similar power.
Steps in the mute dance of Shane’s destructive drinking and Moira’s disapproval take in sour looks to a relaxing of her lips that ‘‘let him know that she was nearing the end of punishing him’’. Midge tries to fluff himself into a state of conventional masculine aggression but realises at the same time that it feels ‘‘false and unconvincing’’. Rory suffers the lesson that male emotion is to be stifled or physically enacted, his face ‘‘screwed up with panic and forced-back weeping’’.
In a superb interview with Charlotte Wood for her series The Writer’s Room Sherborne speaks of a variety of misandry he sees that consigns male writers to ‘‘the mental and emotional ghettoes of sport and business’’. Wood describes his ‘‘anger at what he sees as men’s cultural exclusion from expression of complex emotions’’ as a ‘‘powerful engine for his work’’.
Tree Palace is a defiant riposte to such limited gender mores, as well as to the misogynist corollary that denigrates domestic fiction as feminine and therefore inadequately cerebral. At the same time, he takes on conventional ideas of what Australian fiction might be, offering a unique, vivid portrait of his characters. With the crystallisation and compression of poetry, Sherborne explores ideas of property, freedom and loyalty, and produces a novel as beautiful in its conjunctions as the chandelier swinging over its landscapes.
Felicity Plunkett is poetry editor at UQP.