“We were all grinning and everyone had their eyes open for once. Ian must have been moving – his hand was blurred. It was exactly how I imagined us, right down to Kieran’s arm around me and the peace sign he was making above Matty’s head. The big carving was behind us, and the other trees leaned into the picture, like giant people……when I looked at the image again, the colours had already started to fade, as if it was a moment we could never have back.”
Where The Trees Were is the third novel by award-winning Australian author, Inga Simpson. At midnight on a cold Canberra winter’s evening, a rare artwork is stolen from the loading dock of a well-known art gallery. In her position as senior conservationist specialising in Australian artworks, thirty-year-old Jayne Lawson’s opinion is sought, but no one suspects her of carrying out the theft. Why would a respected professional jeopardise her reputation, her career and her freedom in this manner?
Soon to start High School, Jay is enjoying a summer of freedom with her friends. The river at the end of Jay’s parents’ farm is where she and Kieran, Ian, Josh and Kieran’s younger brother, Matty (when they are forced to take him along) spend their days as soon as chores are done. When this tight-knit group make an amazing discovery in a grove of gums, they make a solemn vow.
The story is told over two timeframes in alternating chapters: young teen Jay narrates the events of the late eighties while the events of 2004 are told from thirty-year-old Jayne’s perspective. Simpson anchors her narratives firmly in their respective time periods with current events, music, movies, books and social attitudes. She includes a wealth of interesting (and sometimes shocking) information, incorporating topics as diverse as Tour de France, arborglyphs, the Archibald Prize, establishing the provenance of artworks, the Patagonian Toothfish and Native Title.
While the story gradually unfolds, Simpson treats the reader to some beautiful and eloquent descriptive prose: “It was so peaceful up there, with the clouds, that I didn’t ever want to come down. It was as if all the things that had happened were smaller, paused somehow, while I was in the air. As if the glider were a time machine that might set me down at a moment and place of my choosing. With the whole world to choose from” and “…I watched the treetops against the sky, the birds busy in their branches, and all of the flowers and insects that you only noticed when you were still, the sounds and smells that made a place and were the whole world. Eventually, I felt still again, too” are examples.
For any reader who spent part or all of their childhood in rural Australia, or even in the outer city suburbs, Jay’s narrative will strike a chord: lazy summers spent swimming, floating downriver on lilos, jumping from a rope swing, blackberrying, catching crayfish, playing games. And cooler months spent camping out, sailing model boats, and building a bonfire, all are so evocatively described that one can taste the blackberries straight off the bush, feel the dust underfoot, the sunburned skin, smell the fire and see the stars in the chilly night sky.
Simpson’s third novel has characters that are easy to care for and a plot that is wholly believable yet not entirely predictable, all contained within a gorgeous cover by Allison Colpoys. Fans of her earlier works will not be disappointed with this outstanding book. Another brilliant read 5 stars