I hate calling a book "charming", but Christopher Morgan's narrative, of three generations and six decades in the lives of a quiet Melbourne street, deserves the adjective.
This second novel by the author who began writing only after he was diagnosed with a brain tumour is memorable also for its unabashed theatricality, the way in which scenes resemble the carefully posed tableaux of an old photograph or a naif painting.
The street, named after its 200-year-old hardwood trees, is the most ordinary of places, yet lit by love and understanding, or darkened by small betrayals and by gunshots and police sirens. We see it first in 1914, when it's still dust and clay, with a scent of wild country on the westerly. We follow it until the early 1970s, when suburbs sprawl and slump over every horizon.
Along it comes the parade of people "living their lives quietly and sometimes loudly". Johnny the maimed farmer-turned-portrait painter; Melbourne's "favourite career criminal", who gets away from it all via the army; the clergyman struggling to keep his faith, and the bishop struggling to keep his reason.
Soldiers return from one war as heroes, then from another as pariahs. Kids grow up, families move away, women march to be heard, a boy watches the world from up a tree, neighbours conduct a silent war over rubbish bins.
Just about everyone has a secret, which is occasionally cranked up into a "Dark Secret".
There are subdued and therefore startling glimpses into male emotions, where the "sound of the four hooves on the gravel road makes him want to cry", and where men respect each other too much to look closely while talking. Life is watched closely and quietly: horses, people, a hunting bushfire, the apostle birds that choose a tree for generations.
"Gentle ... little ... slight": Morgan's style is as restrained as the setting he evokes. Modest cadences, unobtrusive imagery, dialogue where grave men recite old truths. Always respectful, always readable, this is a novel that watches characters work their flawed, dogged way towards "the fine art of belonging". And, yep, it's charming.
David Hill is a Taranaki writer.