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”.

Washington has a gift for description that is well showcased in these stories. One character imagines a tsunami, watching her family “drown in a turban-swirl of foaming, angry water”, while an old couch in a community radio station has its foam stuffing “bursting out of it like pus from a green blister and whenever anyone sits on it puffs of dust form clouds like a swarm of micro-beasts”. Descriptions vary in a way that suits each particular story, and the multitude of different voices in this collection is one of its great strengths, a polyphonic chorus of human life.

The stories in Plane Tree Drive all focus on those who live on and around the eponymous street, and the book peels behind the facade of normalcy to reveal the secrets, hopes, and desires that we all live with. A large cast of characters listed at the start of the book is like something you might see in a lengthy epic saga novel, but instead Plane Tree Drive offers glimpses into the lives of these characters through quite short stories, most of them able to stand alone, but with various connections and some wider character arcs that gradually build to weave a more complex tapestry of meaning. Some characters appear in only a single story, while others recur, echoing the different ways in which we encounter people in our lives. Washington uses this line from The Great Gatsby as an epigraph:

Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

Plane Tree Drive encapsulates moments of the “inexhaustible variety of life” that can be found on a single street, the diversity that pulses below the surface of normalcy, and the ways in which these lives can intersect. What’s most striking about this book is the way in which its forms echo its themes. There is a formal inventiveness and variety in these stories that helps to illuminate the variety of these character’s experiences and perspectives. We have one-or-two page stories, longer stories, first person, second person, third person, past and present tense, diary entries with an implied reader (the nosy brother!), a flow chart as a story, a story containing a Venn diagram, and a questionnaire—‘Housing Needs Assessment’—being filled out by a social worker in her attempt to obtain housing for Faraj, an Afghan asylum seeker with a traumatic past.

The playfulness and variety of forms, and the ways in which Washington uses these formal experiments to construct meaning, elevate this collection from quotidian fiction into something touching and profound, and as we see relationships in all their different phases, we also see lives at different stages, and people from different backgrounds, all doing what people do: striving, loving, reaching, living, hoping, and dying. There are moments of self-realisation—“security and love are not the same”—“I’m ready to start again”—that we will all be familiar with, so that even though we are dealing with a multitude of characters, it all fits together in a cohesive whole.

These are primarily stories of love and loss, life and death, but also just about getting by. It’s possible for experiments in form to have a distancing effect for a reader, but Washington avoids such traps, and it’s apparent that much thought has been put into the book’s structure. For the characters who only appear once and for the many characters who recur throughout the book, the elements of story unfold as disparate tiled pieces coming together to form a singular, complex, and beautiful kaleidoscopic mosaic. It’s also worth noting that a number of the stories contain golden laugh-out-loud moments, something all too often missing in Australian fiction, and another way in which the book demonstrates its interest in all aspects of our lives: not just the tragic, not just the love and loss, but also the fun, the boredom, the highs along with the lows and middles. It’s also worth giving a shout-out to the role music plays in some of the stories, and in these character’s lives—this felt to me, as a music-lover, like fiction written by a fellow music-lover. Lynette Washington has achieved something quite special with Plane Tree Drive, and I look forward to reading what she writes next.

Disclosure: I originally published the story Housing Needs Assessment in Tincture Journal Issue 4, November 2013. A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

Plane Tree Drive is published by MidnightSun Publishing, https://midnightsunpublishing.com/2017/09/plane-tree-drive/

 

 

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