BOOK REVIEW: TREE PALACE

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by Renee Imbesi

 

What pops into your mind when you hear the phrase, “Ah, this is the life?”

 

Sunbaking by the Fitzroy Pool, perhaps? Maybe munching canapés at sunset at a Melbourne rooftop bar? How about tucking into the complimentary biscuits in a motel room while your family enjoys their last few minutes with hot running water?

 

In Tree Palace, it’s Moira who rips the bikkies open with a sense of extravagance. She is the tender and flawed mother figure in Craig Sherborne’s second novel, which is set beyond Melbourne city limits and beyond the borders of our urban psyche.

 

When we meet Moira and her family – including teenage children Zara and Rory, newborn grandson Mathew, her partner Shane and his loyal half-brother Midge – they’ve recently stumbled upon a place to call home.

 

Somewhere in the Wimmera-Mallee plains, they have discovered an abandoned house. It’s far enough from the fictional country town to escape the attention of the authorities. But it’s near enough to force Moira’s clan to brush up against the edges of a society from which they are excluded.

 

Moira and her family are ‘trants’ (itinerants), the new label for people sleeping rough in rural Victoria who live in conditions that most readers would think of as squalor. This is modern Melbourne’s ‘underclass’ – the people who have nothing but their names and souls to truly call their own – and of course, their family.

 

The notion of family is held up for healthy scrutiny. Moira and her clan share very little of the blood ties or affection we expect to see at family BBQs or on weeknight television. There is none of the easy intimacy we might expect in a family whose shortage of money and social power forces them to rely solely on each other.

 

Their tendency toward reluctant and selective warmth is only betrayed by their fierce loyalty, especially in defence against outsiders and the authorities. There are surprising confrontations and tender scenes of forgiveness, narrated with refreshing honesty and wariness of cliché.

 

In other works of fiction, Moira’s family would be the cheats, truants, teenage mothers and under-privileged people at the margins of the story. In Sherborne’s work they are the centerpiece, and their triumphs, foibles, delusions and daily struggles for dignity are deftly shown to be worthy of our recognition.”

 

Tree Palace also grapples with the notions of morality and justice, with an unlikely set of anti-heroes at its core. In other works of fiction, Moira’s family would be the cheats, truants, teenage mothers and under-privileged people at the margins of the story. In Sherborne’s work they are the centerpiece and their triumphs, foibles, delusions and daily struggles for dignity are deftly shown to be worthy of our recognition.

 

Throughout the novel it becomes painfully obvious that middle-class morals are laughable in the face of daily destitution. Meals for Moira and her family are mostly cheese and onion sandwiches, instant noodles, cola and tinned soup. Showers are taken at the local trotting track. Stealing from op shops happens as much as stealing from wealthy people, and contact with police is avoided at all costs.

 

Indeed, Sherborne’s title is deeply ironic, because there is no sense of luxury in Tree Palace. Likewise, there is no luxury in Sherborne’s style – the prose and the dialogue are sparse, as if the characters are saving their words as carefully as they save gold coins.

 

By portraying the practical choices and constraints of a desperate life, Sherborne invites us to abandon the simplistic notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ that feature in current affairs shows and tabloid newspaper headlines.

 

While the portrait of contemporary poverty is convincing, it is miraculous that Moira and her family are shielded from the most destructive aspects of real life on the margins. Sadly, violence, exploitation and chronic health problems feature all too strongly in the lives of Australia’s non-fictional underclass.

 

Perhaps Sherborne thinks that middle-class Melburnians will feel sick enough at the prospect of cheese and onion sandwiches, and aren’t yet ready to stomach the awful tragedies of homelessness. His characters are resilient and the violations against them are not too shocking and as a result, in this novel, lives are changed but not genuinely transformed.

 

In this novel, Sherborne shines a brave light into life without the wealth, access and dignity that most of us take for granted. But instead of just making us grateful for the canapés and sunsets, Sherborne has connected us intimately with people we will probably never meet living with choices we will probably never have to make.

 

Tree Palace is longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award. The winner will be announced on June 23.

 

 

Renee Imbesi works in health promotion, reads with a passion and lives in the northside with her husband and two beautiful babies.

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