The Tree of Man – Patrick White

Book #496a
Reviewer: Tall, Short & Tiny

The Tree of Man

 

A friend’s boyfriend recommended The Tree of Man years ago, when he found out how much I love to read. He wrote the name of the novel in the little notebook I carried for such purposes, and a few years later, I decided to try his suggestion.

From the moment I began to read White’s prize-winning novel, I was hooked.

It is an evocative, beautifully written novel, with descriptive passages that transport the reader directly to the heart of rural Australia. However, the narrative never detracts from the quintessentially simple, rural nature of the story; it only serves to describe the setting and its inhabitants perfectly. White has taken an ordinary, plain situation, and made it interesting and beautiful.

The imagery is fantastic; I especially enjoyed the way White described the intensity of bush fires, and was turning pages as fast as the flames ripped through the landscape. I also thoroughly enjoyed White’s use of language, with immensely appealing lines such like,

“…she began to feel sad, or chocolatey.”

White has the ability to describe the most mundane, ordinary things in a deliciously ordinary way that evokes such strong images, such as,

“She sat in an old cane chair, which creaked beneath her. The chair had been unravelling for many years but it was comfortable.”

This novel is about human endurance, about relationships (including friendships) and how they change over time. There is a recurring theme that in time, and with age, love is transformed into habit; I interpreted the line above about the cane chair as a metaphor for the love-to-habit theme. As the central characters, Stan and Amy Parker, move through their lives, there are many moments where their love for each other is questioned, yet they still appear strong. White writes,

“Habit comforted them, like warm drinks and slippers, and even went disguised as love.”

and Amy is often lamenting not loving someone enough.

For the most part, this novel was a real page-turner. About three-quarters of the way in, I felt as though the chapters were just filling in time until something inevitable happened, and didn’t enjoy it as much as. However, only a few chapters later, I was hooked once more, and felt the novel was back on track.

When a central character dies (I will not say who!), there is very little drama or fanfare about it, which feels natural because the novel is very much about the everyday. Perhaps it is also because the death of someone is expected, given that the novel begins with marriage, and goes through the (natural) progressions of life; while it is a sad occasion, I don’t think the novel would have felt complete with this happening.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Tree of Man, and it came as no surprise that this was the winner of The Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. I give it 4.5/5 stars.

Kristin Lavransdatter – Sigrid Undset

Book #722a

Reviewer: Arukiyomi (First published April 2012)

Please welcome our latest reviewer, Arukiyomi.  You may notice his button in our sidebar; this links through to a rather nicely put together spreadsheet of all the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die lists.  Enjoy, both the review and the spreadsheet.

This is an epic in the great tradition of Scandinavian literature. A trilogy which helped to win her the Nobel Prize, Undset’s masterly portrayal of the life of a 13th century nobleman’s daughter is a classic work and should be more widely known.

Kristin is a headstrong beauty who spends most of her life torn between her urges (love, guilt, loyalty) and her obligations (family, religion, gender). There’s plenty here that occurs in many other great novels but what makes the difference to this work is not only the richness of Undset’s exploration of Kristin’s character, what makes this novel stand out is the setting.

I doubt many are familiar with 14th century Norway. Exploring it through Undset’s prose is a very rewarding experience. Granted, there are brief stretches in the second book where the medieval Scandinavian political scene dragged a bit. But these are brief and you’re soon back into the countryside, or houses, or food or clothing or religion and these are all richly described. For me, the blend of superstition and Christianity was fascinating. Why so? Well, it mirrored almost perfectly that of the 21st century Papua New Guinea I’m living in. Made me wonder if the present day church in Norway is what PNG’s will look like in 2800.

There are plenty of events along the way that keep you occupied while you get to know the setting and Kristin herself. She has 7 sons and, as they grow up, she finds herself facing somewhat similar issues to those her father faced with her. She deals with these in various ways, always haunted by what she put her parents through.

And there are plenty of other characters to keep you busy if you’re not taken with Kristin herself. Her father features a great deal in the first book and he’s something of a hero, both on the domestic and national fronts. Simon is also a key figure in the narrative and his love for Kristin is an entire story in itself.

So, if you want to immerse yourself in the past for a while and see both how life has changed while humanity has stayed the same over the last 800 years, get yourself a copy of this. For portability though, I suggest you get the e-book. Alternatively, at 1100 pages, use it to build your biceps on your daily commute.