Where The Trees Were – Inga Simpson

Sometimes you just know you are going to fall in love with a book. After hearing Simpson talk about this novel at Adelaide Writers Week I rushed over to buy my own copy. I have an affinity for the Australian book and the descriptions of the scenery had me entranced from just the small excerpt read by Simpson. Where The Trees Were follows the story of Jay across two time points. As children playing on her farm in the 80s Jay and her friends come across an amazing discovery of a group of carved trees. They know these trees are something special and decide to keep them a secret to protect them. Later we meet Jay as an adult, working at a museum still seeking to protect these precious artefacts.


One element of this novel I found particularly striking was the lack of physical descriptions that Simpson gives. Rather than providing the reader with a car picture of what her characters look like, the reader is left to create their own images of Jay and her friends. I find this highly unusual, yet a very under-rated technique. Physical traits are only described or mentioned when they had relevance to the story she was weaving, for example Kieran’s physical size was used to explain his dominance and Ian’s heritage was only mentioned as it became necessary in the plot. This is quite important as it makes the statement that heritage, physical features etc. don’t change the character and the reader has no problem creating their own image with out these pieces o information.


I highly enjoyed the format of the two time points, past and present, spliced together throughout the novel. This coupled with the short chapters kept the pace of the novel moving, keeping the reader constantly engaged. In fact, I read this novel in one day as I just could not put it down. In fact I already look forward to acquainting myself with more of her work in the future. The characters were another highlight. Jay is a great narrator, honest, innocent and relatable. The reader is able to put themselves in her shoes as she navigates both the past and present. Friendship is an important theme within the novel and in particular the ever-changing nature of childhood relationships that grow into adult lives are expired with Jay and her circle of friends.


This book also got me thinking about just how much Aboriginal heritage and identity has suffered at the hands of those governing Australia, both past and present. While very familiar with the Mabo case from high school legal studies, I had never even considered the destruction that would have occurred. Scared land-holders just trying to protect their property would have done the unthinkable to protect their families and homes but at the expense of our indigenous culture and identity. So many important artefacts destroyed it is quite devastating to think about. It also highlights the fact that our government is yet to acknowledge the true custodians of this land in the Constitution. Something that still needs to be fixed, something that is the least we can do.


Overall this is an exquisite example of Australian fiction. A book that captivated me and spoke to my soul. How glad I am that I had the opportunity to hear Simpson speak and open me up to this experience. Where The Trees Were is a true gem of a novel and I suggest you go out and get yourself a copy. I give this novel five glasses of wine that Jay so enjoys, something I can relate to myself.


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