Daily Archives: December 27, 2008

‘The Christmas Tree’ by Jennifer Johnston


1981,  168 p.

Kimbofo at Reading Matters gave this book five stars, and I felt like reading something Christmas-themed.  It was a good choice: not too long, tinged with sadness,  seasonal enough without being mawkish.

I’m coming to have a great respect for the novella as a genre.  Its extra length encourages you to climb into the characters’ skins in a way that the short story doesn’t; the art of providing back-story and present action is even more demanding, and its brevity allows an intimate, close-up look at a particular circumstance without the need to tether it to a wider narrative sweep.

In this book  Constance, suffering from leukemia diagnosed soon after she has given birth to her daughter as an intentional single mother, returns home to her parents’ house to die.  Both her parents have already died, and her judgemental sister veers between officiousness, support, and pre-occupation with her own life and children.  It is a couple of days before Christmas and ill, and left alone for much of the day, Constance decides that she would like a Christmas tree.  Her sister is pushing hard for Constance to go to hospital to die: Constance refuses, but does accept the offer of  ‘a girl’ to come from the nearby orphanage to look after her.  Very quickly, I came to appreciate Constance’s clear-sighted and rather sardonic humour, and the young exuberance of Brigid, the young girl relishing the relative freedom despite the demanding task she has been asked to take on.  Her doctor and ex-boyfriend, Bill, is just the sort of doctor you would want in such a situation and his friendship goes beyond just the professional relationship.  The Christmas tree itself is small and covered only with blue lights that glow steadily on the otherwise bare tree.

There are three narrative threads, and Constance’s own delirium provides a useful narrative tool to weave them together.  We are living and breathing the slow process of dying in present time, she remembers meeting Jacob the father of her child, and she thinks back  and tries to make sense of her strained relationship with her parents.

This all sounds rather gruelling, and to a certain extent it is.  The book reminded me in many ways of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, which was likewise short, intense and painful.  By the end of its 167 pages, you exhale with relief that it’s over, not necessarily in a negative sense, but because it’s time.