Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Nikki Gemmell is the author of fourteen works of fiction and seven non-fiction books, and her novels have been translated into 22 languages. Many will know this writer from her weekly, often controversial, column in The Weekend Australian newspaper. In 2007, the French literary magazine Lire included her in a list of what it called the fifty most important writers in the world – those it believed who would have a significant influence on the literature of the 21st century. Her 2003 novel The Bride Stripped Bare caused a sensation when it was published.
The Ripping Tree, her latest novel, which she tells the reader took ten years to write as motherhood got in the way, unlike many novels, does have a story to which the title is intricately linked. She also reveals that the name, Ripping Tree, is what her son called this type of tree when they returned to Australia to live. For the main character in the story, and the voice of this book, The Ripping Tree was magic because its bark can be used for a million things. “The ripping tree, I whisper…what eccentricities this upside-down land brews” (99).
This is a story about the past and is told by a grandmother to her family after they return from a visit to the lovely colonial property, Willowbrae. For them the turrets, the crenellations, the magnificent library, the avenue of elms and circular flower beds presented a lovely calm and serene appearance. This is not the grandmother’s opinion, so she did not go. On their return she said, “I think perhaps it’s time I read you a little story about your magnificent Willowbrae, my darlings…A different kind of story. That you’ll never have heard before” (1).
The story that follows takes place over seven days. Each day is divided into several chapters some of which are only one or two pages in length. This is the story of a young girl, brought up by her widowed father in England. On his death she becomes the responsibility of an older brother. Because of her upbringing she is not a quiet, submissive young lady and her brother decides that she will return to Australia with him and his new wife to be married to someone she has never met.
Just as they are nearing their destination, a fierce storm dashes the boat into the rocks. She is the only survivor. Her rescuer leaves her wrapped in bark from the ripping tree on the doorstep of Willowbrae. After first feeling that she has been saved and can now take control of her own life, she soon feels “like there are layers and layers of things going on here”, that she wants “to peel away at Willowbrae‘s secrets like the bark on the Ripping Tree until a bare core of truth and honesty is exposed, and nothing else is left” (181). She believes that she might be in danger and she does not know whom she can trust, but the alternative is not to her liking either – “town and its crushing curiosity or telling the truth and being married off” (143). She has become attached to the young boy in the family who is extremely lonely and desperate for someone’s love.
The author has written honestly about life in the early colonisation days and the attitudes of a family cocooned in their own little bubble away from the town centre. The mother, at first, welcomes the young girl as she has lost her only daughter and is surrounded by the men in her family. She misses the lifestyle from which she has come, however, this survivor is not like any girl she has dealt with before. The various issues arising from such an isolated and insular existence are explored alongside dealings with the original inhabitants.
Although it took so long to write, it is probably a better time now for such a book to be published. People are becoming more open to change in attitudes and being prepared to speak out about injustices from the past. This book should be part of ‘the Truth Telling’.
Much has been written about the writing style of this author and it does stand out as being different. I enjoyed sentences like – “My torn skin was invaded by sting” and “Rubbed my eyes into cleanness, into sight” (22), yet there were times when I thought the writing style took over from the story and it impeded its progress. Having said that, The Ripping Tree is an interesting story about one aspect of early Australian life and how our early experiences can have such a lasting effect.
When the story ended and returned to the present, I was left wanting to know more, not so much about the time immediately after this story as I do not believe that they would have been very pleasant. But did she marry the vicar who visited regularly over concern for her welfare? And what happened to the individual family members from Willowbrae? Possibly this is the stuff for a future novel.
Nikki Gemmell writes a remarkably interesting tale.
by Nikki Gemmell
Fourth Estate Harper Collins