The Tree of Man by Patrick White is so good that I’m afraid of not being able to do justice to it in this review. I’m desperate to convince other people they should read this book and don’t think I can do any better than the quote on the back cover of the copy I read from the New York Times Book Review from when this novel was first published, in 1955:
A timeless work of art from which no essential element of life has been omitted.
Superficially, The Tree of Man is a story of the lives of an Australian couple who settle a remote property and bring up a family.
After the death of his parents, Stan Parker went to live on a property near Sydney which he had inherited, clearing the land and building a shack before finding a wife to share his life.
As a young couple Stan and Amy were happy, taking pleasure in each other and their lives, which were made up of repetitive days upon days of farm chores and conversation which barely skimmed the surface of their deepest thoughts. Their quiet lives were rarely interrupted, but when it was, it was by a big event, such as a flood where Stan and other men from the area assisted stranded neighbours, or war, or the birth of their two children, Ray and Thelma.
When they reached middle age, Stan and Amy seemed to lose the connection they had when they were younger, realising they never truly understood each other and that they probably never would, although both continued to desire this understanding their whole life. Their children grew up and left home, going on to disappoint them in all of the ways that children do and leaving Amy wondering aloud to Stan if perhaps together they weren’t a good match to breed. In old age, the city had expanded out to their farm and they were both still trying to understand life, death and god, although not religion. The last chapter absolutely floored me, with Stan and Amy’s grandson deciding to write a poem about life before deciding the subject was too big for him.
The Tree of Life reminded me of Australian artist Frederick McCubbin’s painting The Pioneers. Made up of three panels, it shows a selector and his family starting out on their land, the second panel showing that over time they have become established before ending with the city having come to them and a death. I would love to know if this painting, which I occasionally go and look at in the National Gallery of Victoria during my lunch time, influenced Patrick White’s story. I think there is a quote from the book with the painting in the gallery, so it seems possible.
Each appearance of Amy’s friend and neighbour, Mrs O’Dowd, was a source of amusement due to the trouble she brought on herself wherever she went. In the early days she almost got herself and Amy ‘jobbed’ after insulting a group of young men, another time the two of them were chased around and around the O’Dowd’s dirty, falling down hovel by Mr O’Dowd who was trying to shoot them while he was shickered. I’ve never heard the word ‘shickered’ before, but it makes me laugh and I don’t even drink. Later, it come out that Mrs O’Dowd wasn’t really a ‘Mrs’. Somehow Amy wasn’t as shocked as I was.
Despite the simplicity of their lives, Stan and Amy lived a life full of every emotion that every person feels. They experienced hope and sorrow, jealousy and lust, hurt and hopelessness, joy and acceptance, confusion and apathy. They hide their feelings from each other and from themselves, with rare moments of understanding and seeing into each other.
The everyday life part of the story made me feel nostalgic for my family stories from my grandparents times, clearing the land which would become the family farm, day in and day out doing manual chores, feeling affection for their cows and eating what they could grow themselves, helping their neighbours and being helped themselves in times of need, battling natural disasters and building a family, the men going off to war while the women carried on at home, later seeing their children grow up to make their own way in the world and being left behind eventually to continue their own lives, becoming grandparents, growing old and selling off or leaving the farm, watching old friends die, until their own time had come.
Patrick White is a huge name in Australian writing. He won the inaugural Miles Franklin award and loads of other writing prizes including the Nobel Prize for Literature before taking himself out of the running for further prizes, in order, as he said, to give younger, less established authors a chance to win. He took a public stance in controversial Australian issues of his time, including opposing Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and becoming ‘antiroyalist’ after the 1975 constitutional crisis. He was also quoted as saying that he would be embarrassed to be held up to the world as an Australian writer, when he felt as if he was at heart a “cosmopolitan Londoner”. I don’t think the ‘cultural cringe’ which Australian artists felt in the 1950s through to around about the 1980s is a thing anymore, but it was a popular mindset at that time. Later, White opposed uranium mining and spoke publicly to call for the destruction of nuclear weapons.
The Tree of Man has a level of detail which I’ve rarely come across in a novel. The writing is beautiful and I read some of it aloud to myself (not on the train) just for the pleasure of hearing how the words went together. I could almost turn back to the first page and re-read this book again, but there are plenty of other books he has written too, and I’m torn. The Tree of Life is going to be a difficult book to beat for my book of the century (if I live that long).
The Tree of Man was book seven for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.