Cover of book: Tree Palace

Craig Sherborne
Tree Palace

Craig Sherborne has had a curious career trajectory for a serious contributor to Australia’s literary culture. Hoi Polloi, his debut, came ripping out of the gates, a cracker of an autobiography that read like a bogan bildungsroman from beyond. The boy Sherborne narrates the story of his strange little family unit, led by “Heels” and “Winks”, the parents who were trying to make it in horse racing and zigzagging from New Zealand to Australia.

Swiftly following it with a sequel, Muck, which brilliantly served to extend but not stretch the story, Sherborne seemed the kind of writer who had quality life material from the top drawer right down to under the floor.

And all this from a Herald Sun journo who occasionally moonlighted as a minor Australian poet! Good for him, we thought.

Then came The Debut Novel™ – seemingly rendered in caps by his enthusiastic publishers – with the disastrously daggy title The Amateur Science of Love. And even this was based on life, with much ink spilled about the way the novel intersected with Sherborne’s tragic loss of his first wife to breast cancer.

An essay about the same story had appeared in the pages of The Monthly three years before the appearance of the novel and was easily the sharper, more intense read.

Tree Palace, happily, is a hell of a title for a novel. It practically smells of paper and plot, which is a good sign for the author’s first purely fictional title. Having apparently cut the autobio cord, he is freed to roam at his own will.

Of course, it’s not that easy to divorce your personal obsessions from your public fictions. So here again is a somewhat rural setting and a strained, strange family dynamic. Moira – the fucking mad matriarch, who steals any scene worth its salt and worthy of her saltiness – recalls the uncensored rawness of Heels and Winks. The rest of the cast of itinerants – or in Sherborne’s abbreviation of choice, “trants” – don’t add up to quite so much. They’re a motley bunch, no doubt, but in the same manner in which David Michôd’s fierce family crime film Animal Kingdom was dominated by Jacki Weaver, everyone is left practically feeding on nana’s scraps. She chews up the scenery. In a terrific early scene, she guides a baby to an unwilling mother’s breast, which comes to represent her determined will to do right.

Publicity for Tree Palace will likely focus on The Big Topic™ at the heart of the novel – homelessness and the realities of living on the socioeconomic fringe. We should all shudder in unison. Sherborne is an incredibly incisive and sharp memoirist, but he wields a blunt knife within his fictions. And watching a hobo dance without the chance of a dangerous lunge is a pretty boring sight.

The novel is weighted with an overly earnest plot, but worse, it comes off as strikingly anachronistic. Sherborne is trying to make a point here somewhere about the plight of a lower class, but he can’t shake performing his best Steinbeck impression, and that throws the novel back 50 years before its actual period setting.

It often comes down to the romanticisation of the poor, though not as badly as some poverty porn that passes for “literary fiction”. Sherborne appears far too in love with the details of these lives to not drag us down into them. Job hunts, thieving, stripping a house bare; none of this needs particular witness in a fictional form. An episode of The Block does a better job of commentary.

However, at a time in Australia when we seem too ashamed to even utter the word class in most conversations, Sherborne has dived right in.

Home ownership has always been a big part of that story in this country, and homelessness is a persistent and real threat for many, one to be taken seriously. The book has already received a glowing online notice in Eureka Street by Barry Gittins, a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army, who would know better than I would. He praises the novel for its various realities: “You feel the pressures of limited cash and fewer options; the shame and stigma of illiteracy and poverty; the whiplash of judgment.”

Gittins’ review reads better on the subject than on the book as a whole, which is perhaps not surprising: Salvation Army research would no doubt prove more useful than a literary work – however well researched – as a catch-up on the topic of homelessness in Australia.

Despite these reservations, Sherborne can write, and there are flashes and flares of the genius behind Hoi Polloi and his other autobiographical work. Whatever the ambitions of novelist and publisher to sell him as writing’s answer to Russell Drysdale – here to tell us what’s really going on out in the bush – his strength remains in his skill at psychological portraiture. He has a feel for these lives that few other writers could hope to possess, and manages to bring Midge, Moira, Zara, Rory and company to roaring life, even if some are sketchy individually.

That this appears once more to come from his roots and upbringing suggests the story of his extraordinary childhood is buried under his skin, even with many tellings of it already told. It is thematic overreach that has slowed him down here.

Sherborne, four books along, is a writer of such quality and vivid direction that you’d willingly let him drive you basically anywhere, and Tree Palace will rightly have its fans but maybe someone should take away his keys to The Novel™. The inner, intimate stories of family are where his own experiences steer him to persuasive heights. Perhaps, unlike most of his contemporaries, Sherborne has simply led too rich a life to start inventing others.  MM

Text, 336pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 5, 2014 as "Tree Palace, Craig Sherborne".

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