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”.

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Tourmaline (Chapter Three), by Randolph Stow

‘A buried town.’ The diviner thought about it, dreamily, and with a curious yearning intensity.

I too was remembering, not for the first time, the broad street of Lacey’s, the two-storied hotel, the several stores. I imagined the gentle tidal encroachment of the dunes, the soft red sand, wind-ribbed and untrodden, mounting, mounting. Over the bar of the hotel, over the piano and the billiard table, over the counters and merchandise of the stores; until, in the end, what would be left but a chimney or two of the hotel, dully moaning in the red wind? And those too, of course, the wind would have silenced by now, and the sand would lie unbroken and printless over all the places that knew me. In my terrible loneliness I grow elegiac.

Tourmaline (Chapter One), by Randolph Stow

At times, in the early morning, you would call this a gentle country. The new light softens it, tones flow a little, away from the stark forms. It is at dawn that the sons of Tourmaline feel for their heritage. Grey of dead wood, grey-green of leaves, set off a soil bright and tender, the tint of blood in water. Those are the colours of Tourmaline. There is a fourth, to the far west, the deep blue of hills barely climbing the horizon. But that is the colour of distance, and no part of Tourmaline, belonging more to the sky.

It is not the same country at five in the afternoon. That is the hardest time, when all the heat of the day rises, and every pebble glares, wounding the eyes, shortening the breath; the time when the practice of living is hardest to defend, and nothing seems easier than to cease, to become a stone, hot and still. At five in the afternoon there is one colour only, and that is brick-red, burning. After sunset, the blue dusk, and later the stars. The sky is the garden of Tourmaline.

‘Landscape With Freckled Woman’, from Landscape with Landscape, by Gerald Murnane

The young man believed he might draw a map of a city beyond the reach of normal perception and only faintly recalling the city where he had lived his early life. The suburbs and districts in the new city would be sized and spaced according to the intensity of the poetic feeling he had once felt in this or that part of another Melbourne. Thus, a huge glowing core of what he called vivid imagery—with its centre where Fitzroy might have been—would spread outwards and drive to the farthest margins the shrivelled remains of places where a young man had once tried and failed to feel what was expected of him.