In Tess Evans’ second novel, The Memory Tree, she explores themes of family, memory and regret. Sealie and Zav’s mother, the ballerina Paulina, died mid-dance when they were children, from a freak lightning strike in the backyard of their Melbourne house. Their father, Hal, is utterly broken by this and only the steadfast presence of their patient housekeeper Mrs Mac holds the family together. Hal plants a magnolia tree in the backyard to remember Paulina, and makes his room into a shrine memorialising her. To all appearances, the family starts to mend, so much so that Zav brings home his beautiful new wife Kate on the eve of the Vietnam War. He is called up to serve, and leaves a pregnant Kate behind, not even knowing whether he will survive to meet his own child.
However Hal is becoming trapped in his memories and finds that he is starting to hear voices. The voices associate with colours, black and green for evil and white or blue for the song of angels. He is increasingly isolating himself from the world and unable to distinguish whether he is acting on his own or following the guidance of the voices. So when he meets a neighbourhood preacher without a congregation, the American immigrant Godown, he seems to be ripe for danger. Godown’s history seems murky and the family are not sure that he has Hal’s best interests at heart.
When Kate has a beautiful daughter Grace, the family – Sealie, Hal and Mrs Mac – gather round and help her in Zav’s absence. One day Kate has her first free hours to herself and leaves Grace with Hal and Godown and terrifyingly, Hal hears voices and obeys them, in the process cutting himself off from the family and from understanding. It is left to Sealie to pick up the pieces and hold the family together. Zav returns from Vietnam a changed man, and his marriage soon dissolves, leaving him with no wife, no child, and a million years’ worth of regrets. Sealie must age before her time as she carefully folds away all her dreams into boxes in the attic to care for her brother, and also her father.
The novel is a gentle exploration of what mental illness can do to a family, and from the perspective of the times, there was little in the way of talking about it let alone treating it. It is stories like these that make us thankful for the attention that is paid to mental illness in today’s society, and gives us a reminder to pay attention to our own families.
Available now: Allen & Unwin RRP$27.99