The Tree of Man by Patrick White

Originally reviewed by Edith LaGraziana
on Edith's Miscellany

Everyday life with its inevitable, often annoying routine is what most of us gladly pass over in silence because it doesn’t seem worthwhile to lose a word about it or just a thought. Nonetheless, the greatest part of human existence is made up of it and at least sometimes we wonder whether there isn’t some unexpected meaning or purpose behind it all – like a secret plan of God or Destiny or whatever other seminal power. The Tree of Man by Patrick White, the Australian Nobel Prize-laureate in Literature of 1973, tells the story of a man who leads just the ordinary life of a hard-working farmer with wife, son and daughter in a changing world. He does what needs to be done and accepts all vicissitudes – joys as well as trials – with apparent stoicism although inwardly he wrestles all his life to reach a deeper understanding and find God.

Patrick White was born in London, United Kingdom, in May 1912 and grew up in Sydney, Australia. After boarding school in England he worked as a stockman in Australia for two years and then returned to England to study French and German literature. Still as a student he published his first volume of poetry and brought out some plays. After his father’s death in 1937, Patrick White became a full-time writer and reworked his first novel titled Happy Valley (1939). During a stay in New York City, USA, he wrote The Living and the Dead published in 1941 when he was already working as an intelligence officer for the British Royal Air Force in World War II. After the war, the novels The Aunt's Story (1948) and The Tree of Man (1955) received international acclaim, but in Australia his breakthrough as a novelist only came with Voss (1957) followed by his most famous works Riders in the Chariot (1961) and The Vivisector (1970). In 1973 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Best known among his later novels are The Eye of the Storm (1973), A Fringe of Leaves (1976) and The Twyborn Affair (1979). In 1981 he brought out his autobiography Flaws in the Glass: a self-portrait. Patrick White died in Sydney, Australia, in September 1990. 

The opening scene of The Tree of Man shows young Stan Parker who arrives at the piece of bushland far off any human dwelling that had belonged to his late father and that became his after the death of his mother. He owns nothing else except a dog, a horse, a cart and some tools to clear the place and build a hut to sleep in, but he is strong and knows what needs to be done and how. After a while, he takes Amy for his wife. For her this marriage means a turn for the better although life on the remote farm is hard and in addition quiet and lonely. Then others begin to settle down in the area and the community grows steadily despite fires, floods and droughts. Stan and Amy don’t talk much, but they feel strongly attached to each other – be it by love or just by habit. After several miscarriages Amy gives birth at last to a strong boy whom she calls Ray. 
“The father and mother would sometimes watch the sleeping child, and in this way were united again, as they were not when he was awake. Released from this obsessive third life that they seemed to have created, the lives that they had lived and understood were plain as cardboard. Affection is less difficult than love. But the sleeping baby moved his head, and the parents were again obsessed by vague fear, the mother that she might not ride the storms of love, the father that he would remain a stranger to his son.” 
Before long they also have a daughter called Thelma, but she is a delicate girl. In other respects too Ray and Thelma could hardly be more different, he being naughty and wild, she good and quiet. Grown-up they share, however, a craving for the pleasures and riches denied them on the farm. Ray leaves without a word to make his fortune in the world, but the dishonest and cruel streak of his nature soon gets him into trouble. Thelma, on the other hand, starts a career in the city that allows her to hook herself a wealthy husband. Meanwhile, Stan and Amy Parker become older following the same farm routines as ever in a neighbourhood that has changed into the suburb of a big city… 

The setting of The Tree of Man in time and place is vague although concluding from a few place names and plot elements like the appearance of motor cars on the roads or the war against Germany it should be New South Wales between 1920 and 1955. The plot flows gently and quietly like the ordinary life of any farmer in the Australian bush, an impression that is heightened by the fact that Stan and Amy Parker are often referred to only as the man and the woman. Unexpected turns and twists of fate are rare even when it comes to natural forces striking the country and calling for action. This is because the author’s focus clearly is on the Parker family, notably Stan, and their understanding of life, of each other and of themselves. The novel has been called a domestic narrative, a fable, even folklore, but much rather it’s a character or social study of the Australian soul merging the experience of life in an inhospitable country with the heritage of European civilisation. It’s also a story about being at a loss for words to communicate with others and to express, i.e. understand the inner self. By contrast the author’s language is highly poetic and rich in powerful images that make the book an intriguing as well as impressive experience.

There can be no doubt that The Tree of Man by Patrick White is a challenging read that reveals its full charm only to those who are receptive to the meaning hidden between the lines and to its spiritual dimension showing above all in the sublime descriptions of stunning Australian landscape. It may help to read the poem from A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman from which the author took the novel’s title and quoted several verses although I didn’t bother to search for it until I set out to write this review… I enjoyed the book despite all. Admittedly, it took me a while to get into this read, but it definitely was worth it.

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