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The Tree Tattoo

by Karen Rivers

Karen Rivers tells an old, old story (middle-aged man, much younger woman), so banal and generic that the three at the centre are identified only by their roles: girl, man, wife. The girl is a journalist, the man grows trees, the wife once used to paint. The script follows the proscribed acts and stages of whispered phone calls, lies, desperate illicit acts, jealousy, remorse. Yet love (or call it sexual obsession here) still exerts its power to imbue life with meaning, to make those in its grip feel that what is happening is unique, astonishing; and as Rivers demonstrates, it can still drive fiction.

Rivers is from Victoria and sets her novel there, or at least somewhere very much like it, with sea, parks, and winter slush. Outside the inner triangle, interesting characters float in our peripheral vision: his grown family, her rather more irregular one, including the four-year-old downstairs, a pair of pale musicians, and Harry, the young journalist girl’s estranged deaf husband, diving undersea half a world away. Though they appear too briefly to be more than sketches, it is to Rivers’ credit that we would like to know them all better. We move with odd omniscience in and out of their consciousnesses, catching sharply focused glimpses of their lives. Meanwhile, fate circles them like a great shark, ready to strike.

The text is treated on the page almost as poetry, which works to convey intensity of feeling and experience. That, along with the girl, man, wife business, only occasionally irritating, imparts some of the elegiac quality of Elizabeth Smart’s 1945 classic By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. A paean to love – so impelling, yet gossamer against the casual kingdom of death – this seems like the book of a young and very talented writer, a first novel to be proud of.


Reviewer: Maureen Garvie

Publisher: Cormorant Books


Price: $19.95

Page Count: 300 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-896951-16-3

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: 1999-10

Categories: Fiction: Novels