The sense of an ending, of closure pervades Craig Sherborne’s elegiac second novel.
Moira and Shane are ‘trants’ (itinerants) roaming the north-western Victorian plains, settling wherever they can for a few days or, if they’re lucky, a few weeks. With Moira’s two teenage kids, Zara and Rory, and Midge, Shane’s brother, the family live on the edges, dossing down in disused properties and stripping heritage buildings when funds are low.
When they come across the run-down property outside the small (fictional) town of Barleyville, it appears to be perfect for their needs: things are looking up. For Moira, this could finally be a place to settle down. It’s also easy access to Alfie, the respectable outlet for Shane’s ‘antique business’. Problem is Zara, at 15, is a new mother and doesn’t want a bar of the newborn or trant lifestyle.
Displaced, never fully embraced by locals in towns with a sense of something closing, with shops boarded up and mail blackening the doorways like rot, they need each other to find their way. It’s Moira who holds them all together, we’re not bad people … We’ve got the shine off us, that’s all.
It’s a vernacular novel – true rural Aussie yet simultaneously exposing a part that’s rarely seen or heard. It’s also a fairly entertaining one: Sherborne chooses to keep the tone relatively light with authentic dialogue and packed with hope. But there’s the rub – such marginalised lifestyles would not be quite so trouble free.
The establishment and authorities are present but other than the arrest of Shane, they are far too benevolent. Itinerants are rarely welcomed, seen as people living off welfare, getting something for nothing, contributing little. Closed rural communities would unlikely turn a blind eye to the squatting of their discovered personal Tree Palace – particularly after the birth of Mathew.
With the exception of Moira, it’s a novel populated with characters not particularly likeable (and Moira is no angel). The authenticity of dialogue and Sherborne’s commentary on the entrapment of rural poverty are beautifully modulated. Yet it needs more social authenticity. Bottom line is that I wanted to like Tree Palace more than I did.
Craig Sherborne’s Tree Palace was shortlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Award but lost out to Sofie Laguna and The Eye of the Sheep.