Representative excerpt: “The blood was running warm and sticky over her hands. Round the mouth, and on one smeared temple, more transparent than she had ever seen it, flies were crowding in black clots, greedy for the least speck of crimson before the sun dried the virtue out of it.” (p. 240)
The title, A Fringe of Leaves, refers—we learn over halfway through the book—to the vine-like cord that Ellen Roxburgh ties around herself to keep hold of the one piece of “civilization” (in the narrow sense that she would likely use that broad word) that she has left—her wedding ring. This scene of despondence comes around the time when the novel transitions, abruptly yet smoothly, from what is essentially an old-fashioned post-Regency tale moved to penal-colonial Australia to a white-knuckle survival tale full of murder, rape and cannibalism. It is the novel’s strength that this transition is not so much one between genres (the prose style remains consistent) as it is simply one between places. The British decorum of the mansions and ships dotting the edges of Australia and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania today) collapses rapidly in the interior, from where the Aborigines brood at the white marauders who will soon take over the continent and subject their persons and cultures to genocide. Roxburgh’s fringe of leaves is of course a symbol of the tenuous border between these two spheres, at once linking and dividing them. It is nature dwarfing the Western ideals of “order” and “progress” while the British and the first white Australians struggle to contort it so as to shelter and uphold them. But were the British ever truly distinct from the Aborigines?—by which I ask, are we ever much more than reflections of the primal, the instinctive, the animal? So much of us remains governed by biological principles—the need for sex from our beloveds and from others, the need to propagate the human race and feed (perhaps breastfeed) our offspring, the ridiculous need for power and hierarchy. These impulses fuel and underscore the British characters just as much as they do the Aboriginal tribes who rival them. They are different civilizations with identical skeletons.
Inspired by the true story of Eliza Fraser—the namesake of Fraser Island—A Fringe of Leaves was Patrick White’s first novel after his Nobel triumph, and it is astonishing for displaying both honesty and respect in its treatment of Australian Aborigines. The novel’s first half is a patient, almost plot-less account of the visit that Roxburgh and her husband Austin pay to her brother-in-law Garnet in Tasmania. The thematic concerns seem typically domestic for a novel of the period: Ellen’s previous life as a rustic Cornishwoman, the shift her personality took when she married Austin and moved up a class, her multiple stillbirths, Austin’s poor health, Ellen’s curious relation with Garnet, etc. Aware that the narrative would not remain in this register forever (the genre switch is foreshadowed, rather too neatly, in the first chapter), I was anxious about whether the portrayal of the Aborigines would be archaic in the worst possible sense, even while I was admiring White’s prose—which can seem florid and austere at first, but which I adapted to as I went along. This story is a slow, slow burn. White makes the reader spend time in this world and learn about it. Then, out of nowhere, he hurls a shipwreck at us, and from that point forward—well, all I really have to say is: whoa. The body count ramps up, and the author gutsily explodes the entire literary world he put so much effort into constructing. That takes Nobel-caliber talent to pull off, and White pulls it off. The tension arises not from the Aborigines themselves, but from the animosity between the whites and the natives, which is stewed in imperialism and the language barrier. The indigenous tribe here is brutal and ruthless, but it is not a racist caricature; one gets the sense that White did his homework and studied the culture. Critically, the Aborigines make an effort to integrate Roxburgh into their culture and push her to forfeit her class privilege, challenging and changing her in the process.
I could gripe about some wheel spinning in the first half, the implausibility of Ellen’s schizophrenic code switches between her contemporary RP self and her Cornish adolescent self, the cramming of a few too many new characters into the dénouement, and the handful of blunt, cruddy character names (Miss Scrimshaw, Jack Chance, et al). Screw all that. This is the first novel I read this year that I can recommend with any degree of enthusiasm. (Last Words from Montmartre, I recommend with caution and measurement. Don’t read it if you’re depressed.) The prose and the shift into high-gear survival mode make the slow burn more than worth it. Ellen’s odyssey with the Aborigines and her escape from them—which is not without assistance, from a surprising ally—is in itself a tour de force, a single hundred-page chapter, perfectly paced and sustained, never once plodding nor moving in haste. I kept on wondering whether I as an author would have Ellen stay with the tribe even longer, or if I would increase the tempo and skip over some of the more extraneous details. I then realized that my uneasy alternating between those two opposites meant that the narrative’s timing was solid and benefited the book. Patrick White is widely considered the greatest Australian author. I used to approach his dense, viscous texts with trepidation, but now that I’ve pushed myself through and been rewarded by A Fringe of Leaves, I am eager to dig into the rest of his oeuvre.
What’s Next: I’ll review A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tomorrow, and Anna Seghers’ Transit shortly thereafter.