Scratching out an existence on the fringes of society in the plains north west of Melbourne is tough going for itinerant Moira Whittaker but when trouble arrives, family always comes first….
Craig Sherborne, an Australian author, playwright and poet, has gained something of a reputation for his hilarious memoir Hoi Polloi, published in 2005, the follow-up Muck (2007) and his award-winning first novel The Amateur Science of Love (2011).
His second novel, Tree Palace, a gently funny and sensitive look at Australia’s marginalised ‘trant’ community, a section of society which tourists, and indeed many residents, rarely glimpse, opens up a new and very different window on the land of sun, sea and beaches.
Sherbourne, a gifted writer whose sense of the poetic adds power to the prose, descriptive luminosity to the evocation of landscape and emotional intensity to character portrayal, plays a blinder in this caustic and yet kind tragi-comedy.
Shane and Moira have been on the move for the past five years but they are ‘the last of their kind’ and ready to settle down. Travelling with them are Shane’s half-brother Midge and Moira’s 15-year-old daughter Zara and 14-year-old son Rory.
They claim welfare when they can and seek out disused houses to sleep in or to strip them of heritage fittings which they sell to crooked second-hand dealers when funds are low.
But now things are looking up. They have found a more permanent home – their Tree Palace – outside Barleyville, a decaying house in a rundown town that ‘didn’t look prosperous which meant they didn’t look out of place.’
But Zara has just given birth to Mathew and she never wanted a child. She wants her body ‘back to normal like it never happened’ and a normal life with town boys rather than a ‘trant’ life with a baby.
Moira decides she will have to step in and ‘stand in’ for baby Mathew who cries the tears he would have cried if he knew his mother had rejected him.
But Rory is disaffected too and finds himself in serious trouble with the police. And when Shane’s ‘business’ starts running into problems as well, Moira will be tested to the limit…
Sherborne is brutally honest in his depiction of a dishonest, dysfunctional but loyal and essentially loving family group whilst laying bare the problems of class, hopelessness and homelessness which bedevil societies the world over.
Moira is the archetypal matriarch, proud but painfully aware of her family’s shortcomings. ‘We’re not bad people,’ she says, ‘… we’ve got the shine off us, that’s all.’
A bittersweet look at life on the other side of the tracks…
(Text Publishing, paperback, £9.82)