The Tree of Man

Patrick White is a painterly writer. On almost every page of this tremendous novel you are invited to pause to contemplate a picture in words, shaped with poetry, that allows, invites you to see an another world enfolded within the unfolding narrative of Stan and Amy Parker's lives.

It is always a world of transcendent possibility but one in which these possibilities often lie tantalising out of reach. Out of reach because of our inability to allow a humility to be born that might grace understanding or, more often, because such understanding might upset the comforting surfaces of our lives or conflict with our often cruel certainties.

There are wonderful set pieces in the book - of nature inflicting its challenges as the Parker's make a life for themselves in what was wilderness and will become virtual suburb by the book's close - of fire and flood and the terrors and revelations that such grand events may bring. But also of the revelations of quiet domesticity and family drama - a son turned to no good account or of a singular adultery witnessed but passed over in silence of a preserved affection or in a singular obsession of meeting every circumstance with baking.

My favourite moment, however, comes at the very end. Stan Parker, recovering from a stroke, sitting in his rough garden, is visited by a young evangelist, all earnestness and incomprehension. It is a comic set piece, fierce in its denunciation of cheap wisdom, lightly earned. Having briefly endured the young man's capering between 'sin' and 'light', Stan Parker, having cleared his throat by spitting on the ground, points with his stick to gob of spittle and says, 'That is God' and from this revelation does the young man flee, uncomprehending.

God is, at once, offensive, present, at the heart of life; and, completely unsettling of any theology. As Martin Buber said of YHWH when translating the Hebrew Bible into German, it stands not only for 'He is present' but as "I am there as whoever I am there' - that which reveals is that which reveals. God will frankly turn up in any dam shape God chooses to - and is, White suggests, rarely polite!

White's novels are slow going - especially this one where the external narrative is so slow moving (and frankly too quietly domestic to arrest attention) - but they repay their necessarily slow, contemplative reading many fold. Not least because, like painting, they return to seeing your 'ordinary' world differently, with sensibility and attention sharpened, especially around all the ways you cut your feeling short, you narrow your attention into the safely habitual to your continuing loss. 


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