Jul/Aug 2016 Reviews & Interviews

The Wisdom Tree: 1. Gotham / 2. Venice

The Wisdom Tree: 1. Gotham / 2. Venice
Nick Earls.
Inkerman & Blunt. 2016. 136 pp.
ISBN 978 0 9924985 8 0.

Review by Ann Skea

A Novella: longer than a short story, shorter than a novel. In the hands of Nick Earls, it combines the best of both worlds.

The Wisdom Tree is series of five novellas to be issued at the rate of one per month ending in September. I have read the first two and am looking forward to reading the rest. Each of these novellas deals with a situation in which personal and family circumstance require a balance of responsibility, duty and love. Each story is separate, with different narrators in different countries, but there are underlying links between all of them.

The first, Gotham, is set in Brooklyn, where Jeff Foster, an Australian freelance journalist, is chasing a story about a 19-year-old rapper called Na$ti Boi (the $ is essential). Jeff notes that Na$ti Boi, who is newly "ascendant" and is about to visit Australia for festivals, does "the usual braggy stuff about bitches and brand names but his rhymes are smart and sometimes unexpected." Jeff knows a good deal about the music scene, but he is older and his musical taste runs more to the Ramones and earlier styles less aggressive than rap, but he has managed to set up an interview with Na$ti Boi and has already sold this interview to several media outlets. And, as the story gradually reveals, the money is essential for family reasons.

The interview begins in the "At His Service" rooms of Bloomingdales. In this discreet room set aside for special customers, manequins model the clothes and expert sales assistants hover whilst "the boy pharaoh" indulges his newly found taste for excess. Specially chosen food is offered—chocolate coated goji berries, wildflower organic honey. Jeff notes that "This era, food is all about adjectives, the boosted, the story."

Nick Earl expertly captures the bravado, the excesses of "a young rapper with his head spinning too fast to settle on anything tasteful," the insensitivity and the underlying insecurity of Na$ti Boi. He captures, too, Jeff's expertise as he indulges him, waits in the car as he visits his drug and sex "candy store," and works to get a good story, not just the usual programmed responses to an interview. The unexpected connection which grows between Jeff and Na$ti Boi's minder, "Smokey," leads to revelations about Jeff's small daughter which are wholly unexpected. And the joy he describes as she flies down a playground slide with Smokey's small son, living "this instant and all its glee and defiance," makes a moving ending to a brief and beautifully told story.

Venice, the second novella in this series, is set in Brisbane, Australia. Ryan, the narrator, has recently been the victim of the economic downturn. He has been invited, as he notes bitterly, to "explore other opportunities": the company is downsizing (or "right sizing," as they put it) and this is "the language of the cull." From a 32-year-old man whose is used to city life and to dropping off his business shirts and suit at the local laundry, the need to exist on his severance pay is a shock, and he is living in the large house belonging to his sister and her financially successful dentist husband whilst he hunts for a new job fitting his qualifications.

Natalie, his sister, is an established artist whose work is currently being considered for the Australian exhibit at the Venice Biennale. Ryan, by default, and partly to make him feel useful, becomes her part-time child minder. With absolutely no experience of the minds and habits of four-year-olds, this is a challenge. It helps that his nephew, Harrison, is addicted to games on his "chunky green tablet with a green gel skin and a hint of frog-and-pond theming," so he is easily occupied, but his questions can be disconcerting and he is a sponge for details. "What does a stomach look like on the inside" is his current preoccupation as he listens to an app describing the digestive system.

Ryan is becoming aware that Harrison is missing out on some things due to his parents' distraction with their busy lives. Regular swimming practice, for example, not just a weekly lesson; and, especially, suggestions and support for the "show and tell" sessions at his child care center, where Ryan sees that Harrison feels sad at being left out.

A request from his sister to pick up some horses heads from out of town for an art project she is completing, offers a way of filling time with Harrison and suggests itself as a possible topic for show-and-tell. It turns out to be a huge and unexpected success and Nick Earls captures superbly the growing, almost accidental, development of a kind of understanding between Ryan and his small nephew. He conveys, too, the awkwardness over roles and money which underlies the interactions between Ryan and his relatives, and Ryan's feelings as he adjusts to being unemployed and taking on a different role in the family.

The novella format is expertly handled by Earls. In spite of, or even because of the necessary compression of detail, the allusive nature of his narrators' thoughts and their views of events and of the people they interact with bring the story to life and offer understated psychological insights. These are small gems of stories, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.


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