Saturday, June 10, 2017

Reading Notes: Where the Trees Were (Inga Simpson)

This review is my third from the Miles Franklin longlist. For earlier reviews, please see here:
The Easy Way Out

This is, in some ways, the most difficult book yet of the Miles Franklin bunch for me to review, because I am torn between wanting to praise it for its considerable virtues, and my unceasing irritation at one central stylistic device that kept pulling me out of the story over and over.

The book, like The Easy Way Out, tackles an issue that is of great interest to me and of great relevance to contemporary Australia (hence, one suspects, its landing on the MF list, which is supposed to prioritise books that speak to the Australian experience in some substantial way). While The Easy Way Out tackles assisted dying, Where the Trees Were takes on cultural appropriation within museology, and the argument for repatriation of cultural artefacts that belong to indigenous people.

It also uses this as a lens to talk to some extent about Australia's dismal history, and indeed contemporary situation, of mistreatment of indigenous people and culture, but strangely, given the scope, the book is much less about that than it could've been. Primarily, this is a story about growing up in the country in the same Australia, era-wise, as when I was doing my growing up in the city; about the losses that shape and mould an ordinary life; and about how the truths we learn in childhood are both powerful across our whole lives, and dreadfully unreliable in the wider world.

The central protagonist is Jayne - farmer's daughter; part of a crew of close-knit friends from surrounding properties and one from the town; and, later, museum curator in Canberra. The story is unusually rich in well-developed secondary characters - child/teen Jayne's friends, Kieran, Ian and Josh; adult-Jayne's partner, semi-spy Sarah; and Jayne's farmer parents, are all fully realised, complex people. The interplay between Jayne and her supporting cast is written beautifully and with a surety of touch that makes all the relationships feel authentic. I felt like I actually knew all these people by the novel's close, in a way that rarely occurs for books that have a single key protagonist.

There are many minor details in the book that feel unforced but are so resonant (to me, as an Australian who grew up in the same time period, albeit a different place). It is a book embedded in Australia - in chocolate bullets and illegal fireworks, in cycling in Canberra, in the Brindabella bushfires, even in the school texts under study (Jayne, like me, studied Z for Zachariah as her year 7 English text, a traumatising selection that I am still bemused by, as a generation of kids were introduced to the Coming Nuclear Apocalypse at the ripe old age of 12). I enjoyed this aspect of the book immensely - it's one of relatively few I have read that has related the period of my own adolescence in such seemingly casual but beautifully artful detail.

The plot itself concerns the existence on Jayne's family farm of a series of arboglyphs - tree carvings made by the Wiradjuri people to mark the gravesite of a fallen member. The arboglyphs' impact eddies throughout the book, affecting families and relationships, shaping Jayne's career choices, and, indirectly, leading to the most crushing of the traumas of the group's early teen years. It would not be untrue to say that Jayne becomes who she is because of the glyphs.

The pacing in the story works well on the whole, but the way in which it is accomplished brings me to my chief criticism (indeed, only significant one, but it's a biggie) of this novel - IT CHANGES POINT OF VIEW WITH THE ONE PROTAGONIST. By this I mean - Jayne remains the central subject throughout, but the book cuts between the storyline that occurs from the end of her primary schooling up until she leaves high school, which is told in the first person, and adult Jayne's storyline in Canberra, which circles around to meet up with the junior story and is told in the intimate third person. So when we're with 14-year-old Jayne, it's all "I did this and I saw that", then in the next chapter we're rocketed into "Jayne saw the door close behind the security guard" etc.

I am going to slightly belabour this point, because I think it matters. It seemed to me that Simpson is breaking one of the most basic rules of fiction writing (yeah, yeah, rules are made to be broken, but...) in not "agreeing in person", and unlike some other examples of rule-breaking I can think of, she doesn't get away with it.  I have read many a novel that head-hops and shares the POV successfully between multiple characters; I have even seen a person-POV change between different protagonists work, although less commonly (one example is Penni Russon's beautiful Only Ever Always, which has two mirror-protagonists who are usefully separated by the change from third to second person as we move between them.)

But not maintaining agreement in person for the same central protagonist is a serious irritant, as a reader. It drags you out of the story. It doesn't serve to emphasise the time gap between the two halves of the story (I assume that was the intention) - it just serves to create a sense of muddlement in the novel as a whole around what Jayne is trying to do and why, and indeed what the book is trying to do and why.

For me, the first-person POV is markedly more successful, and I think it would've translated extremely well into adult-Jayne's storyline (it's intimate third person as it is - we are never inside anyone else's head, just Jayne's). I feel this would've been a much more coherent, powerful novel without the POV flips, and first person would've been the best choice for the whole thing.

Overall? A good book; an interesting story, well-told, with a notable strong suit in character development, but let down from being the excellent book it could've been by its weird choice with POV. I give it 7/10.

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