Memoirs of an Australian Girlhood

By Joan Colebrook

Farrar Straus Giroux. 256 pp. $18.95

Expatriation is a perennial theme in colonial life and literature. Judging from a rash of memoirs published in the past few years, it has been a virtually mandatory rite for young Australians (especially women) of artistic or intellectual aspirations who seek to escape the country that Australian poet A.D. Hope called "the last of lands, the emptiest ... the Arabian desert of the human mind."

Many, like Hope himself, later gladly return. Some, like Joan Colebrook, become permanent expatriates. Most eventually moderate their harsh judgments of their native country; those who return become part of the culture they once criticized, while those who stay away find time and distance softening their views, lending nostalgia to their memories.

In "A House of Trees," Joan Colebrook (who, with the exception of six years spent in Mexico in the 1950s, has lived in the United States since 1940) has written a typical expatriate memoir, the kind that sets out to revive what she calls "the vanished shrine" of childhood. The youthful self is combined with remembered scenes and landscapes, and felt in some sense to be mythic. "I dimly understood," she writes, "that Australia itself was Gothic, and that the melancholia which it fostered was somehow akin to my own adolescent loneliness."

Australia is not, of course, Gothic -- or anything else reducible to a single adjective. Yet Colebrook persists in the tendency to project this or that private emotional state onto the country at large, seriously weakening any historical value her memoir might have -- and it does have some -- as well as rendering it uninteresting in the way anybody's self-absorbed monologue might become uninteresting.

This is both surprising and disappointing in view of the genuinely exotic place and time in which Colebrook grew up: on the wet, fertile, rain-forest-covered tablelands of northern Queensland in the 1920s, and later, when she was a university student, in Queensland's capital city of Brisbane, which in those prewar years was hardly more than a sprawling country town.

Writing about the primitive northern Queensland of her childhood, Colebrook is capable of a certain powerful, precise lyricism: "a brilliant landscape, where the grass grew to a vivid emerald and the reddish roads veined the earth as capillaries vein flesh"; "the green possum ... its fur not exactly green at all, but simply giving the impression of being so, exquisitely molded as it was in three layers of whitish beige and brown and gold ..."; the nearby Great Barrier Reef, "two hundred or more cays and atolls formed by coral and detritus anchored by vegetation, and enclosing in smooth crystal-clear lagoons thousands of forms of reef life -- anemones, starfish, and tiny darting coral fish of brilliant colors."

From time to time she has piercingly thoughtful things to say about contemporary rural politics; about the place of the twin civilizing forces of religion and education in that primitive community; about the tenuous relationship between the seat and the outposts of empire; and, in one lovely passage, about the real significance in her own mind of the arduous semipioneer life: "I remember that certain material objects suggested a certain pathos. The harness room at the back of the house held saddles on wooden props, and the saddles especially seemed to be alive as if they were part of the animals from which they had been taken. Whips and bridles hung on the wall. On the floor stood a long row of leather and rubber boots, stained and caked with red mud ... These things were the manifestation of life, but where was the life itself? I could only think that life was a part of the things I looked at and touched; that life was mostly action; that life was a kind of courage."

Yet the memoir as a whole lacks precisely life, zest, passion. Apart from the tendency to narcissism -- unpleasantly apparent in the accounts of her adolescent love affairs that dominate the latter part of the book -- Colebrook's biggest problem as a memoirist is a literary one. Her style depends on a probably unconscious but wholesale inflation of idiom not unlike "the tendency towards heroic grandiosity" that Paul Fussell has observed in British memoirs of the First World War.

"So the news of the world reached us," she writes, "not in great headlines or in the loud voices of modern communication, but slowly, slowly, over the vast oceans from England, creeping up from the south of Australia by boat, and inching along in the small train that crossed the coasted strip, negotiated the steep ravines and the spidery mountain bridges, and at last, like some brave panting animal, mounted steadfastly to our own northern plateau ..."

Overinflated words such as "great," "vast," "brave" and "steadfastly" are doubtless meant to convey what Colebrook profoundly believes: that these settlers and their families and, in its own way, the land itself were actors in some great epic, featuring civilization and barbarity locked in conflict.

The net effect, ironically for a memoir, is frustratingly impersonal, like the acting out of a morality play or melodrama. "A House of Trees" can be wooden in more ways than one.

The reviewer is a Washington writer and critic.