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Homeless wonder on Victoria's plains

  • 14 March 2014

Tree Palace, by Craig Sherborne. Text Publishing, March 2014. Website


Buffeted by the winds of social and economic change, the beaten path of the archetypal itinerant can be traced across Europe and America (think The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, by W. H. Davies, Alexander Masters's Stuart: A Life Backwards and, of course, the American classic, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath).

In his new novel Tree Palace, Melbourne writer and poet Craig Sherborne offers a fresh, affecting and genuinely antipodean view of the peripatetic life in the dusty plains of north-west Victoria.

Moira, her kids Zara and Rory, her partner Shane and his brother Midge are the kind of people you wouldn't think to look twice at. And that's just the way they like it.

Living on welfare and on the constant lookout for abandoned houses to either live in or raid (what they take away they can sell) they're known colloquially as 'trants' (short for itinerants). A disused house outside the fictitious town of Barleyville offers them something new. Stability. But when the 15-year-old Zara falls pregnant and Shane finds himself under the suspicion of the local police, things begin to once again look uncertain.

Here the detail falls as sparsely as rain. Language is metered out with care: 'It was late enough in the day for a carpet of sun to spread out in front of the porch, squeezing through a gap between the L of the house and caravan. Clouds took it away and put it back again like sleight of hand.'

Against this obdurate backdrop, the characters arrive on the page somehow fully realised. Moira, the wallflower-turned-undisputed-matriarch, is the epitome of adaptation and survival. Unable to read or write, Moira instead puts on her 'cunning hat' to get ahead — often to humorous affect, but never at the expense of her humanity.

Sherborne breathes life not just into a narrative, but a cause. These otherwise overlooked and forgotten people might be parochial, but they're never parodied. They might be uneducated, but they have a voice. A voice carried onward by the errant breeze, perfectly in tune with the diurnal struggle of this strange, indifferent land.

I don't know about you, Barry, but Sherborne had me at chapter one. Yes this comes down to the writing, which is, quite simply, sublime, but it goes further than that. There's such feeling; such heart that it's impossible not to fall for Moira, Shane & co. Tree Palace is