I bought Inga Simpson’s second book, Nest, after hearing her speak at a local event. I loved learning more about her writing process and she was very honest and pragmatic about her road to publication. I also enjoyed learning more about one of her strengths – her ability to place readers into the book’s settings – and her commitment to doing so.
Where the Trees Were
by Inga Simpson
Published by Hachette Australia
on March 22nd 2016
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: Literary Fiction
'All in?' Kieran pulled me up, and the others followed. We gathered around the bigger tree. No one asked Matty - he just reached up and put his right hand on the trunk with ours.
Kieran cleared his throat. 'We swear, on these trees, to always be friends. To protect each other - and this place.'
Finding those carved trees forged a bond between Jay and her four childhood friends and opened their eyes to a wider world. But their attempt to protect the grove ends in disaster, and that one day on the river changes their lives forever.
Seventeen years later, Jay finally has her chance to make amends. But at what cost? Not every wrong can be put right, but sometimes looking the other way is no longer an option.
Like Nest, the events of Where The Trees Were unfold in two timeframes. We meet Jay and her friends in 1987. The only child of cattle (and later sheep) farmers in Lachlan Valley (in rural NSW), Jay spends her days with her best friends – all boys – from neighbouring properties. They’re about to start high school and know they’re on the precipice of change.
In 2004, Jayne is working as an art historian / conservationist in Canberra. She’s in a relationship with Sarah and – again – at a turning point in her life.
Although we don’t spend all of the intervening 17yrs with Jay/Jayne, Simpson ensures we know the events of her childhood still play on her mind and she’s struggling with her need to atone for the actions of her younger self.
Simpson’s writing is – again – beautiful and incredibly descriptive.
However… *swallows* I know it’s kinda sacrilegious to admit this but… I’m not overly fond of nature and stuff. I can appreciate a beautiful view or outlook, but flora and fauna… well, #meh. So, as with Nest I could appreciate that Simpson was sharing the bountiful beauty of rural Australia but… rather than soak it up, I (ahem) occasionally skimmed over the glorious detail.
I could very much relate (however) to a lot of other elements of this novel. I’m slightly older than the characters but the 1980s don’t actually seem that long ago, so I remember them well. 😉
And having lived in Canberra for a while, the setting and culture of the nation’s capital were all too familiar. I could imagine Jayne cycling through its streets and dining at its cafes.
Indeed, I worked for AusAID – which gets a mention in the book (and is part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – Sarah’s former employer)…. And I *possibly* knew some people who worked for acronymed agencies that must remain nameless.
Simpson, again, with her ability to imbue a sense of place, captures the essence of the city I struggled to call ‘home’.
Canberra was a city it was hard to get past the surface of until you found your people. p 26
In my review of Nest and summary of Simpson’s discussion about the book, I noted that she tries to place readers ‘into’ her story. I realise now she achieves that via more than just a sense of ‘place’ because she infuses a context which makes the events feel real.
I loved that texture, offered here via Jayne’s anecdotal updates on the Tour de France progress; casual reference to a book which I assume to be Clan of the Cave Bear; and mention of Archibald Prize controversy.
Of course a pivotal element of the plot involved the increased political and judicial consideration given to Indigenous land rights and native title from the mid-late 1980s.
I loved the way Simpson approached race and culture… allowing them to creep up on readers – slowly and passively. The fact that Simpson (via Jay) didn’t bother mentioning the fact that one of her friends was Indigenous until part-way through the novel was exceptionally clever and offers insight into Jay’s accepting and tolerant childhood values.
I must admit that some references to Indigenous culture, societal changes and sacred sites and artefacts were occasionally a little obscure or cryptic. It may have just been me but I felt I was making a lot of assumptions about the actions and discussions of her parents and other adults. (Which of course may reflect the fact we’re hearing things through the eyes of a 12-13yr old!)
Ultimately however, this is a coming of age story. When we meet young Jay in 1987, her carefree life is starting to change. Already on the precipice of adulthood, she’s suddenly exposed to human frailty and her parents’ fallibility, and the fragility of life for the first time.
I very much enjoyed this novel, though Simpson’s work isn’t gripping. Her plots aren’t unfurled at a fast pace that will have you desperately turning page after page. However… her characters are beguiling, themes achingly poignant and prose delightfully addictive.
Where The Trees Were by Inga Simpson was published by Hachette Australia.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.