Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Fringe of Leaves by Patrick White

Whether today or tomorrow's or yesterday's [march] it was all one by now, a continuous seamless tapestry, its details recurrent and interchangeable. Giant, wooden birds stalked the earth, or paused to consider the similar movements of the apparitions confronting them, or flumped towards safety if some more than usually grotesque gesture destroyed their sense of security.

There was an occasion when she fell down, scattering skywards a cloud of ashen parrots. She would have continued lying on the ground and perhaps become her true self: once the flesh melts, and the skeleton inside it is blessed with its final articulate white, amongst the stones, beneath the hard sky, in this country to which it can at last belong.

But he had got down, and was beating on her skull with his fists. 'Come on, fuck yez!' he was shouting. 'Wotcherthinkwereerefor? To die?'

I admit to picking up A Fringe of Leaves because it seemed similar to Voss, which I adored, and if I liked it less than the latter I blame White only partially, saving some fault for whoever wrote this atrocious dust-jacket synopsis for Penguin:

Returning home to England from Van Diemen's Land, the Bristol Rose is shipwrecked on the Queensland coast and Mrs Roxburgh is taken prisoner by a tribe of Aborigines, along with the rest of the passengers and crew. In the course of her escape, she is torn by conflicting loyalties--to her dead husband, to her rescuer, to her own adoptive class.

The myriad sins of which are, in descending order: 1.) The ship is not called the Bristol Rose, but the Bristol Maid. 2.) Mrs Roxburgh is not taken prisoner "along with the rest of the passengers and crew," because "the rest of the passengers are crew" are killed by the aborigines. 3.) Revealing that her husband dies is a pretty egregious spoiler for the back of the book. 4.) The events described here take place roughly two-thirds of the way through the book, and as such cannot really be considered what the book is about.

Let me try to do better. Yes, Ellen Roxburgh is shipwrecked and taken prisoner by a group of aborigines, but A Fringe of Leaves is one of those books that presents itself as being about one thing and then suddenly, in the middle of the narrative, rips the proverbial rug out from beneath the reader and becomes about something else. I think this particular custom, while rare, needs a name. The only other book I can think of that does this is J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace--Can anyone else think of one?

Rather, the book is about Ellen, who was plucked from the Cornish lower classes by a young, aristocratic lodger named Austin Roxburgh. Austin is in poor health, and they exhibit a kind of co-dependence--Austin has provided a way of escape from the poverty of Ellen's youth, and in return she takes care of him. Yet they seem to truly love each other. Their trip to Van Diemen's Land--what we now call Tasmania--is to visit Austin's brother Garnet Roxburgh, who is his brother's opposite: strong, adventurous, domineering. Ellen dislikes him but, perhaps responding to the restrictive nature of her marriage to Austin, lets Garnet bed her in a moment of weakness, thrown from her horse in the Tasmanian countryside.

The jacket is right, however, when it notes that the book is about "conflicting loyalties." Ellen exists in the overlap between opposite groups--the high class and the low, the "civilized" English and "uncivilized" aborigines. Because she belongs to everywhere she belongs nowhere. She is isolated, a stranger to the blacks and once again to the whites, who view her suspiciously after her escape:

Mrs Roxburgh again received the impression that they visualized her as the naked survivor, who doubtless t he moment before had finished defecating behind a clump of their father's bamboos.

So she smoothed her dress before appealing to them, 'You will breakfast with me, I hope, and give me courage to face the morning.'

It was too strange for them to contemplate for long.

Those described here are children, but as is so often the case, they represent the sentiments of their elders more boldly presented. So the push and pull exhibited on Ellen by the elements of English civilization and the elements of aboriginal civilization mirror the push and pull of Austin's class and her Cornwall origins, and the push and pull of Austin himself and his rakish brother.

It is also a book about responsibility and power--though Ellen is a position of service toward her husband, she, as his keeper, holds a great power over him. (So one might read her giving of herself to Garnet as an expression of her desire to forsake power.) This paradox--the power of the servant--is expressed again when the aborigines try to force her to breastfeed a child who has fallen sick. Again, when she is rescued by an escaped prisoner who has fallen in with the aborigines, she tries to promise a pardon for his help, an offer of life against death, even at her lowest point. That these efforts are fruitless--she is too dry to breastfeed; the frightened convict abandons her as soon as they come to the settlement--force Ellen to come to terms with powerlessness.

White's style is strangely schizophrenic: When among the English, his prose has the sort of intricate formality that the Victorians had, and he saves his most exotic writing for exotic places and situations, like the passage I've copied at the beginning of this post. My biggest complaint about Voss was that it seemed to develop with painful slowness, but that the sections situated in the Outback were well worth the wait. Because of the synopsis on the back, I was expecting the same from A Fringe of Leaves, and so perhaps I didn't give this book the patience that it required. Had I read the excellent assessment by the Complete Review, which begins, "It is misleading to describe this as the story of a shipwreck," I might have liked it quite a bit more.


Brent Waggoner said...

I probably would have liked this review better if I'd known it wasn't about a shipwreck.

Christopher said...

To be fair, most of my reviews are of shipwrecks.

Brent Waggoner said...

I think you've got an extra "of" in there, partner.

ANZ LitLovers said...

I hate it when blurbs give away spoilers!
Thank you for a thoughtful review of one of my favourite books by Patrick White:)
If you are interested some of his other books, see here
(Some of these are linked at The Complete Review, but some are not).
Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers (Unofficial Ambassador for Australian Literature)