Where the Trees Were (Inga Simpson, Hachette)
Queensland writer Inga Simpson’s third novel is a moving meditation on the bonds of childhood friendship and the moral complications of atonement. The summer before they start high school, Jay and her four closest mates discover a secret grove of trees on Jay’s family property, and vow to protect their discovery, and each other, forever. But they don’t realise the true significance of what they’ve found—the grove is an Aboriginal burial site—or how easily broken their promise will prove to be. Seventeen years later, Jay finally has the opportunity to make amends, but her actions aren’t without consequences. Grief and the natural world are recurrent themes in Simpson’s work, although she always uses them to different and intriguing narrative effect. In Where the Trees Were, alternating chapters and timelines reveal Jay’s past and present: the events of her early teens, and their effect on her adult life as a museum conservator working in Canberra. Although this structure proves an effective way to build narrative tension, the young Jay is more believable and relatable than her grown-up counterpart, who feels strangely distant and inaccessible. Nonetheless, this is a poignant and page-turning story that touches on important themes of cultural appropriation and the lasting emotional repercussions of innocent childhood acts.
Carody Culver is a freelance writer and editor and bookseller at Brisbane’s Avid Reader