In 2007 Inga Simpson, not yet a successful novelist, is stuck on a wearying conference call when she first sees the cedar cottage that will change her life. It sits in a misty forest and is up for sale. Simpson and her partner, a writer known here as N, aren’t ready for their tree change, but many things in this memoir happen before the pair is ready; they meet challenges as opportunities, equally inspiring and frightening.
Understory traces the next 10 years, as their relationship develops, including N’s two children, more risks are taken before most of it comes tumbling down. Finally, Simpson is left alone in a diminished forest property in a kind of pared-back, almost primal state – fighting madly against neighbours and government plans, and is certainly someone you root for. The steps from 2007 to here all take so much work and time that you finish the book with a raw, wincing feeling about how difficult it is to get what you want out of the world. It’s about connection to nature and place – every chapter begins with an informed discussion of a species of tree – but it’s also about sheer bloody-mindedness.
“English comes easily to me,” writes Simpson. “But English was born from landscapes far from here.” She calls the area of Sunshine Coast hinterland the “interland”, where it’s easy to disappear: “between towns, where houses are tucked away on largish blocks among the trees”. She’s conscious that her imagination is “wrong-rooted in woodlands, populated by elves and dragons, the store of words and images from a lifetime of reading English literature ... I strain to hear the voice of this place, the land itself”. She instead catches its “echo”, and it’s wonderful to think of Simpson and N calling themselves “entwives” – after Tolkien – deep in Gubbi Gubbi country.
While Simpson’s touchstone is Rick Bass, she also cites Annie Dillard, whose work is all about ways of seeing. Simpson learns to see much in the landscape around her and reports it with conviction, but the thrust of the book is less about this journey of noticing than a willingness to dwell in places that are felt rather than seen – in other words, the wounds that don’t heal. It’s a controlled and literate work that earns its emotional peaks. As Simpson writes: “This forest isn’t what it was – but then, who of us is.” CR
Hachette, 272pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 3, 2017 as "Inga Simpson, Understory". Subscribe here.