A House of Trees (Magill's Literary Annual 1988)
Joan Colebrook spent her girlhood during the 1920’s in North Queensland, the upper part of an Australian state approximately one-sixth the size of the United States. Separated from the rest of Queensland by the unseen line marking the Tropic of Capricorn, this area was one of the last to be settled by white Australians, who started making their way north in the early 1900’s, a little over a century after the original penal colony had been established along Sydney Harbor. The land they sought to tame took as its border the Coral Sea’s glistening beaches and the Great Barrier Reef’s underwater carnival of shape and color. Mountain ranges, holding immense mineral resources, rose from the coastal plains. In the rich volcanic soil nurtured by abundant rainfall and sunshine all things grew—blazing flowers, delicate fruits, a rain forest. Animals that had somehow skipped the demands of evolution wandered amid an almost prehistoric landscape framed by iridescent water. Yet heat and violent storms, crippling isolation, six hundred or so different poisonous snakes, flying cockroaches, crocodiles, fish with deadly stings, dense growth, and geological formations that defied passage—all of these and more combined to reveal the place’s deceptive nature. Thea Astley, the contemporary Australian novelist whose fiction set in this region has gained international attention, captured the area’s essence in her essay “Being a Queenslander”: “Yes. It’s all in the antitheses. The contrasts. The contradictions.”
Of the early settlers, not many remained, but those who did developed an enviable strength of character forged from the hardships that so diabolic a paradise served up along with its elusive beauty and wealth. Colebrook celebrates this rare, remote place where she spent her girlhood and pays tribute to her parents, pioneers who stayed to build a home and community on the tablelands above the port town of Cairns. Now in her seventies, having lived in Europe and the United States for the past fifty years, she reinvents the long-ago days in North Queensland and thereby discovers the source of the emotional and intellectual reserves that have served her throughout the years. Astley, when called parochial for writing about North Queensland, replied: “. . . literary truth is derived from the parish, and if it is truth it will be universal.” Much the same could be said of Colebrook’s memoirs.
Colebrook commands a style as varied as the landscape evoked, as fragile as the faraway events recollected, as vivid as the fleeting emotions conjured up from the past. An analysis of a single sentence will illustrate the richness of her syntax, diction, and metaphorical language: “Then the tablelands would be swathed in a shroud of fine rain, and not until this lifted would the earth be disclosed with its old miracle of emerald grasslands and rich red roads.” The land, dead from the long dry spell, seems ready for burial when the wet season arrives, swathing and shrouding it; then the miracle of resurrection occurs once more, its grandeur caught in the word “emerald,” its lifeblood suggested by the “rich red roads.”
Moreover, each chapter brims with memories of people, places, and events, all lent unity and meaning by titles such as “Thoughtless Heaven,” “Over the Bump,” and “Doomed to Happiness.” The opening chapter, “On the Veranda,” establishes both the family history and the landscape in which the family lives. As...
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1988)
Chicago Tribune. December 20, 1987, XIV, p. 4.
Commonweal. CXIV, December 4, 1987, p. 707.
Kirkus Reviews. LV, September 15, 1987, p. 1360.
Library Journal. CXII, November 1, 1987, p. 108.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, January 17, 1988, p. 9.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, October 23, 1987, p. 42.