Strange po­etry of lives en­twined

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Felic­ity Plun­kett

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.

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