Book review: A Fringe of Leaves, Patrick White

From the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature: Set in Australia in the 1840s, A Fringe of Leaves combines dramatic action with a finely distilled moral vision.

Returning home to England from Van Diemen’s land, the Bristol Maid is shipwrecked on the Queensland coast and Mrs Roxburgh is taken prisoner by a tribe of Australian Aboriginals, 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 and to her adoptive class.

Penguin Books

I don’t think I’ve ever read a character arc that is more full, that roams physically wider and psychologically deeper than that of Mrs Roxburgh in A Fringe of Leaves.

For it’s placement in upper class colonial history, this book surprised me by pulling me into some of the most raw of human experiences. I found myself tossed and dragged right alongside Mrs Roxburgh’s incredible life path, leaving me as shell-shocked, disoriented and profoundly moved as the character herself (and just as unable to articulate exactly why) .

Originally published in 1976, I went retro with my bookshelf for this one, to catch myself up on Patrick White after reading The Aunt’s Story and being reminded why literature can be so powerful. In the hands of Patrick White it becomes a tool for searing, perceptive observation of human behaviour; not just what we do, but why we do it and what it means to us.

Every little action or statement is loaded with reason or question, where another author might simply give it a dialogue tag. His character descriptions, too, are among my favourites alongside Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie:

“Mr Courtney was so solidly built, anything overwrought or inessential could only expect to be skittled. It was unlikely that the [ship’s] mate’s own mind would ever wander out of bounds, except perhaps during sleep, heaving in those more incalculable waters like one of the whales it delighted him to watch.”

Patrick White, A Fringe of Leaves

I suspect he may have been rather a searing character in his own right. From his work, his eyes must have been like diamond-tipped drill bits, and I would not want to be under that gaze. As a reader, however, I am awed and more than happy to reap the benefits of his work.

I will say that I find Patrick White better as a writer than a storyteller. By this I mean that at times I find the story labouring to move forward; the book begins slowly, dense with description and characters; and ends similarly so that I’m not sure exactly where I’ve been left off, or why there. There was a neat tie-back to that laboured beginning which gave me the ah-ha I’d waited the whole book for, but it kept going beyond where I’d felt satisfied, and left me a little lost again. I suspect Patrick White intended to do exactly that though I’m not entirely sure I comprehended his full meaning.

The middle bit, however, was fantastic. As soon as the first shock came, I was hooked, and found myself thoroughly enjoying a book that I was unable to predict and had to work at fully comprehending, but that I knew somehow was completely worth it.

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