Review of ‘Plane Tree Drive’, by Lynette Washington

The plane tree is a colonial import to Australia, often found lining city and inner-suburban streets in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. Shaded avenues often lined on both sides, forming a ceiling of brilliant fluorescent green in spring and summer that becomes somewhat stark and barren in winter. Most controversially, perhaps, aside from being a non-native tree, they can also be an allergy and respiratory menace in spring, when the trees shed their spiny hairs and seeds, especially on windy days. It is, of course, all a matter of perspective and subjectivity, but also of timing and repetition—as marked by the passing of the seasons.

In Lynette Washington’s Plane Tree Drive, somewhere between a short story collection and a novel-in-stories, we see a number of perspectives on the plane trees throughout the book. On the opening page, Maurice reflects that his soon-to-be ex-wife Jacqui “used to look up at the branches, reaching over the road towards each other, and mutter under her breath, ‘monstrous’ or, ‘it’ll be the death of me’. She said the trees made her feel like she was in prison. She was convinced the street was shadowy, secretive. Something about the gnarled fingers of the branches especially made her skin crawl.” Later, Jennifer, who paints as an escape from her life as a wife and mother, and who dreams of her unrequited first love, Alexander, sees “trees with crooked fingers leaning over each other, grasping and locking themselves together.” For Coralie, driving down Plane Tree Drive with her vents closed, the pollen is “like yellow puffs of fairy floss”.

Continue reading

The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante

That people, even more than things, lost their boundaries and overflowed into shapelessness is what most frightened Lila in the course of her life. The loss of those boundaries in her brother, whom she loved more than anyone in her family, had frightened her, and the disintegration of Stefano from fiancé to husband terrified her. I learned only from her notebooks how much her wedding night had scarred her and how she feared the potential distortion of her husband’s body, his disfigurement by the internal impulses of desire and rage or, on the contrary, of subtle plans, base acts. Especially at night she was afraid of waking up and finding him formless in the bed, transformed into excrescences that burst out because of too much fluid, the flesh melted and dripping, and with it everything around, the furniture, the entire apartment and she herself, his wife, broken sucked into that stream polluted by living matter.

Owls Do Cry (Chapter Twelve), by Janet Frame

“The children had never seen their father cry before. They had thought that fathers get angry and shout about the bills and wearing slacks, and laugh with the woman from the bookstall, and sometimes with mothers; but never cry.

He looked like a bird, with his mouth down at the corners, the way a fowl looks when the rest of the fowls have been put in for the night, and the realization of their going has overtaken the last fowl; and she panics; and her beak drops; and that is how Bob Withers’ face seemed when he really knew about Francie. He knew later than the others. They had been warned, and driven, like fowls at night, inside, though not to warmth. Driven inside to outerness, as if the moment they passed through the door of knowing, they came, not to warm nests, but dropped down to dark, yet in some kind of comfort because they were together and close; and there was Bob waiting to be driven inside to share the darkness of their complete knowing, and not wanting to go, and being scared, like the lost fowl.”

Owls Do Cry (Chapter Nine), by Janet Frame

“And listening to their father say about Francie, the children felt afraid, as if suddenly the walls of the house would collapse and the roof disappear and leave them, naked, with nothing to shut them away from the world, and the world in one stride would walk in and take possession of them, holding them tight in its hand of rock and lava, as if they were insects, and they would have to struggle and kick and fight to escape and make their way. And each time they made their way and the world had dropped them for a while to a peaceful hiding place, it would again seize them with a burning one of its million hands, and the struggle would begin again and again and go on and on and never finish.”

Owls Do Cry (Chapter Six), by Janet Frame

“But in all her knowing, she had not learned of the time of living, the unseen always, when people are like the marbles in the fun alley at the show; and a gaudy circumstance will squeeze payment from their cringing and poverty-stricken fate, to give him the privilege of rolling them into the bright or dark box, till they drop into one of the little painted holes, their niche, it is called, and there roll their lives round and round in a frustrating circle.”