This is a novel of ponderous observations made out of some pretty simple lives. I suppose that ought to be its appeal; all good fiction is based on truth, and the truth is hard to define in most people’s tour of duty on the planet. What we are left with are questions of relevancy, meaning, and purpose, and I am not so sure any of them are answered between the covers of this book.
The Tree of Man reads like a fable, and almost every paragraph ends with a metaphorical observation on the human condition. Stan Parker is a simple man who finds connections with his fellow human to be more difficult than his connection with the land he lives on. He marries a bright, lively girl named Amy, and the couple raise a boy and a girl on their farm in back bush New South Wales. A variety of neighbors, both weird and endearing, weave through their lives as they struggle through floods, bush fires, and their own doubts and shortcomings. These interactions are what really moves the story along because the character development becomes much more important than any pretense of a plot. The Parker children grow to become flawed adults, each in their own way, but it doesn’t appear to be anyone’s “fault.” Watching them develop those flaws is part of the appeal of the book, and recognizing that their development is more than simply the cause and effect of incidents and vignettes is necessary to fully appreciate the narrative.
I once tried to read another novel that tackled such heady issues as the meaning of life and could not finish it because of its brutal honesty. The Studs Lonigan trilogy by James T. Ferrell sets the action in a Chicago Irish slum, but the questions that are raised are the same as those posed on the paddocks of Parker’s farm. Why are we here? What does it all mean? There is no clear answer in either book, but both succeed in a very visceral way; they make you think hard enough that it almost hurts.