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Book DetailsISBN: 9780733635960
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Book Review: Understory by Inga Simpson - Reviewed by CloggieA (21 Aug 2017)
“Each year this brush box ent reaches closer to the glass, towards the map of Middle-earth beside me. He filters my light green. I imagine his closest limb stretching out, kinking down through the open window while my back is turned, and exploring my wooden desk - a distant relative, perhaps - searching for what it is I do all day, as slow-moving as a tree. I would like to place my fingers against his just for a moment, to hear what he would say, and to convey all that I feel.”
Understory: A Life with Trees is a memoir by prize-winning Australian author, Inga Simpson. It details over nine years of Simpson’s life in a cottage in the sub-tropical forest of the Sunshine Coast hinterland. “We wanted a simple life. A writing life – a life that revolves around writing, rather than squeezing it into the cracks.” The tree change came sooner than expected, and Simpson is candid about the financial and other pressures the move causes. She details the pros and cons of intimacy with the local wildlife, the problems associated with commuting from a remote location where public transport can be erratic, as well as dealing with neighbours whose attitude towards the forest is less benign, with power companies and councils whose attitude is downright malignant.
With her partner, she decides to buy a neighbouring property to fulfil the long-held dream of opening a writers’ retreat, a decision perhaps based more on wishful thinking than sober facts. She is honest about successes and failures, about debt and selfish, thoughtless guests. But also about the inspiration for novels she drew from her surroundings: “Living among trees, amid the green, has allowed further regrowth. I came here to look after them, but the truth is, they look after me.” Mentions of arborglyphs, copper sculptures and treehouses will resonate with readers of her novels.
Many of the chapters are titled with tree names (common and botanic) and Simpson often notes the indigenous name if it is known. Her extensive research and her love of the forest is apparent in every paragraph. Despite her wonderfully evocative descriptive prose, a section with photographs or watercolours of botanical drawings of the plants and their parts, which would, doubtless have added significantly to the printing cost, would have enhanced the text immeasurably.
Faced with many challenges, a relationship breakdown and a business failure, Simpson nonetheless remains positive: “…I remember that night, that feeling, of first finding my way in my new home, my new life – how excited, confident and full of wonder I was. Nothing has turned out how I imagined, and I am no longer that person, but I am at home in this place, and I have it to thank for who I have become.”
“It dawns on me that this is the language of the forest. I may not yet be fluent, but I’m literate; I can hear, see, smell and feel it. I read scratches on these trunks left by koalas, goannas and sugar gliders – they write their own stories. This forest is part of me now, and I’m part of it. My eyes, which have little colour of their own, are more green.” A fascinating read.
Inga Simpson began her career as a professional writer for government before gaining a PhD in creative writing. In 2011, she took part in the Queensland Writers Centre Manuscript Development Program and, as a result, Hachette Australia published her first novel, MR WIGG, in 2013. NEST, Inga's second novel, was published in 2014, before being longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Stella Prize, and shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal. Inga's third novel, the acclaimed Where the Trees Were, was published in 2016. Inga won the final Eric Rolls Prize for her nature writing and recently completed a second PhD, exploring the history of Australian nature writers. Inga's memoir about her love of Australian nature and life with trees, UNDERSTORY, will be published in June 2017.
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