Tree Palace by Craig Sherborne
Young matriarch Moira, her partner Shane, his half-brother Midge and Moira’s children, Zara and Rory, each from different fathers, are ‘trants … the last of their kind’; itinerants squatting in deserted properties in the Victorian wheat belt, surviving on welfare rotation and Shane’s particular talent for thieving heritage fittings from old homesteads.
Tree Palace, Craig Sherborne’s second novel, tracks their lives in the fictional town of Barleyville where they have briefly settled in the months after 15-year-old Zara has given birth to Matthew. When an act of betrayal lands Shane in hot water, his unexpected absence is a catalyst for change and growth within this unusual blended family. Ideas of attachment and abandonment resonate throughout Tree Palace, and Sherborne pushes his characters to their limits, testing their mettle to create a family drama that is at once comic, tragic and unsettling – his portrayal of breastfeeding, for example, will likely polarise some readers. While Zara struggles to bond with Matthew, Moira’s desire to protect her grandson is extreme.
Sherborne’s descriptions of landscape are poetic and powerful, reinforcing a sense of identity that is deeply connected to a sense of place. At the clothesline, Moira dreamily notices clouds that ‘lurched eastward and fell down behind the back of the world’. Ultimately it is Moira’s voice, with its touch of gypsy superstition, which absorbs us – she is cunning, crafty and capable of keeping her fantasies of a better life in check. Despite the sense of unease pervading Tree Palace, there’s an uplifting ending with a very comic, ‘tranty’ slant. Sherborne hints that his resilient outsiders may not, like Moira’s clouds, fall down behind the back of the world after all.
Sally Keighery is a freelance reviewer.