A FRINGE OF LEAVES by Patrick White
Kirkus Star


Email this review


Some, surely not many, will remember the dire fascinator Mrs. Fraser on the Fatal Shore, by Michael Alexander (1971). Here the disastrous experiences of Eliza Fraser--a dubious heroine who ended up expoiting her travail--have been merged with the story of one Ellen Roxburgh and interpreted with far greater humanity. Ellen is a docile if crude Cornish farm girl elevated to the drawing room by her marriage to Austin, an older man who enjoyed poor health and whose ""glossy whiskers, fastidious hands"" rarely made importunate demands on her. But Ellen dutifully attends him, anxious to ""please and protect"" him all the way to Australia where they go to visit his hotter-blooded brother who seduces her and leaves her pregnant. On the return, the ship hits a reef and Austin, clutching his Virgil rather than Ellen, reaches land only to be savaged by natives. Ellen, dropping a stillborn child, stripped to her wedding ring, drapes herself with the fringes of leaves of the title and witnesses appalling atavism until a convict helps her escape to the safety she hopes will be theirs. She attempts to salvage him while confirming her own sensuality. But in a penal colony she sees and hears equal brutality, leaving her to wonder about ""good"" and ""bad"": ""Until we know we shan't have justice--only God's mutton for Sunday dinner."" White sustains the ordeal with an unerring eye and one reads in the latent trust that something can be retrieved, most especially Ellen--""gashed and slashed too often."" Somehow she rises above her doubts and guilts and converts the novel into something more than the literal evidence of ""people's frightfulness."" White, usually the obdurate realist, has paradoxically gentled the horrific experience of Mrs. Fraser through Ellen and achieved a compassionate as well as an astonishing story.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1976
Publisher: Viking