Maggie reads Tree of Man by Patrick White

Words by Maggie McDade

Published on August 17, 2011


When I was sixteen I read Johnno by Brisbane’s beloved David Malouf and from that point on I have been addicted to books with ‘Australian-ness’.  Malouf’s descriptions of his dark Queenslander in Hamilton and the streets of Brisbane after rain delighted me no end.  This led me to Cloudstreet, which brought me to tears with its yawning houses and hot days by the river.  I also discovered The Crookes of Epping, with Col riding his bicycle through the cold on his way to the Collingwood wood yards.

Up until a few months ago there was one catalogue of Aussie quintessence that I was yet to charter.  It belonged to the big wig of Australian literature, Patrick White.  White generally terrified me.  It is hard to find a photo of him with even a hint of a smile, even though a recent Wikipedia search enlightened me to the fact he spent a good ten years breeding puppies.  His books exuded seriousness and doom, and a pen not afraid of tragedy.

And so it was that one Wednesday The Tree of Man arrived in my mailbox as a gift from a close friend.  The first page was incredible.

Birds looked from twigs, and the eyes of animals were drawn to what was happening.  The man lifting a bundle from a cart.  A dog lifting his leg on an anthill.  The lip drooping on the sweaty horse.

The novel follows the life of Stan Parker from the moment he arrives at the piece of earth he makes his home, until the moment he leaves it with death.  Stan brings a wife there, Amy, who births two children, Ray and Thelma.  They don’t really like their daughter very much (she is an asthmatic and has pale skin), preferring their run-about son who lives with a woman called Lola (who is hinted to be a lady of the night).

Stan and Amy are hard people who get up at dawn to milk and tend their crops, never drink, and do not have a God.  The Parkers don’t talk very much, particularly not about their feelings, but through White we grow to know their weaknesses and their downright hard approach to life.  Despite braving flood, drought, fire, death, and a diet consisting mainly of bread and salted meat, they never complain of hardship.

White has a freakish ability to describe feeling and atmosphere like nothing I have ever read before.  It is though he looks down on everything that he has written taking place, and observes the subtle changes to all that surrounds a movement, a glance, or a softly spoken sentence.  He hints so wonderfully at significant things that happen in these people’s lives that are never spoken of.  Amy appears to fall in love with a woman that comes riding along their road, and becomes obsessed with her dresses and hair.  She visits her house one night, has a glass of wine with the servants, and spills the beans.  Everyone turns a blind eye and leaves Amy on her way.

For me, The Tree of Man was a book that required concentration and respect.  It’s not a holiday book.  You have to sit up straight and think a little.  White’s language is lost on the lazy; it has a wonderful and rich tone, rewarding those with time and patience.  It took me a good two months to get through, but once I was done, I felt a great sense of accomplishment.  Voss is next.