Combined Reviews: The Fern Tattoo by David Brooks

fern_tattoo.jpg Reviews of The Fern Tattoo by David Brooks
University of Queensland Press
Publication date: August 2007

[This novel has been longlisted for the 2008 Miles Franklin Award.]

From the publisher's page

Evidently she knew who I was, or thought she did, since I had apparently needed no introduction and certainly hadn't received one... She told stories. One could almost say she rushed into them, on the merest of pretexts, as if the world was ending very shortly and they had to be got through before it happened.

A century of family secrets starts to unravel when Benedict Waters is summoned to an audience with an old friend of his mother. He is seduced by her storytelling and it takes time and an astonishing revelation before he realises that it is his own family he has been hearing about, his own life that is being undone.

From the Blue Mountains to the Hawkesbury and from Sydney to the south coast of New South Wales, The Fern Tattoo takes us on a kaleidoscopic journey through several generations of three families. We meet a range of extraordinary characters including a bigamist bishop, a librarian tattooed from neck to knee, a young girl who kills her best friend in a tragic shooting accident and a pair of lovers who live each other's lives for years after they have separated. As with all families, there are lost loves, tragic passions and unspoken - sometimes unspeakable - histories.

The Fern Tattoo is a beguiling novel about the certainty of fate and the randomness of love that announces David Brooks' return as one of Australia's most distinctive literary novelists.


Kevin Rabelais, in "The Australian", finds the novel difficult to get into at the start, but he warms to the style and concept as he goes: "One of the achievements of The Fern Tattoo, Brooks's second novel and fifth work of fiction, resides in its refusal to distinguish between truth and lies...The novel proceeds slowly, with meandering sentences -- at times needlessly long, for Brooks tends to reiterate -- and minimal dialogue. His prose demands patience and aspires to a lyrical quality that it often fails to achieve. While rhythmic, his sentences are laden with the kinds of inessentials, most notably a plethora of adverbs, that weaken the narrative's authority. Brooks is a stylist in the sense that he writes as much for his reader's ear as for their eye. His sentences can evoke several senses at once, as when he describes the 'continuous scream of summer heat'...With The Fern Tattoo, Brooks has given us an ambitious novel about how stories outlive and form us."

Judith Armstrong in "Australian Book Review" tends to concur: "This is a novel structured like a mosaic, each chip, big or little, complete in itself, but deriving its ultimate significance from a larger, as yet undisclosed, scenario. Not until most of the pieces are in place does the overall schema become even half clear, and then you must take a pencil and paper and do a lot of working out for yourself, in an effort to give to somthing resembling a jigsaw puzzle, disordered and fragmentary, the teleology and linearity associated with both history and narrative shape.' Which may sound like a lot of work for the reader, but Armstrong concludes that "..the writing is simply too masterly not to be, in itself, a spectacular reward."

Short Notice

Readings: "Meticulously plotted, The Fern Tattoo carefully unveils a story of the inescapable burden of ancestry and family heritage."

Which isn't a lot of reviews for a major novel such as this. And there's no way of telling if this is because none of the other major papers thought it worthy of a review or if the publisher didn't send out many review copies.

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on March 17, 2008 8:58 AM.

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