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Posted on 12 Nov 2021 in Fiction, Flashback Friday |

NICK EARLS Wisdom Tree: Five Novellas. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren

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This month’s Flashback Friday explores Nick Earl’s entwined Wisdom Tree novellas from 2016: Gotham, Venice, Vancouver, Juneau, and NoHo.

The Tolstoy quotation about unhappy families could easily have been the epigraph to every one of the five novellas that make up Nick Earls’ Wisdom Tree collection. But instead of just dlumping the Russian’s words onto the page, Earls does something more interesting – he lets Wanda, a security guard in a Los Angeles gallery, misquote Tolstoy, flipping the words around to eliminate the very possibility of a truly happy family.

‘What was it that book said?’ Wanda is pointing with her pizza. ‘It was a movie, too. Russian. No family is perfect, but each family isn’t perfect in its own way? Somethin’ like that.’

With the Wisdom Tree: Five Novellas project, Nick Earls introduces us to five families who seem doomed from the beginning. These aren’t stories of tragedy or immense hardship. Almost all the central characters are privileged. But there’s always an exclusion, a lingering absence that Earls doesn’t always address directly.

These novellas are about big feelings, rendered on a small scale. A man unable to buy his favourite ice cream, or a scuffmark on an expensive purse – tiny tragedies take on a larger significance in Earls’ pages. These five disarming and tender tales each capture their characters in perfect, quiet moments of vulnerability.

The Wisdom Tree novellas were originally published in serial form, released on a month-by-month basis. Gotham, the first in the series, was released in May 2016. As physical objects, they’re things of beauty: small, square books, each with a stunningly detailed line art cover and design elements repeated inside. At the end of 2016, the series was released in a single print volume. Google calls it a ‘Christmas edition’, because what says Christmas more than unhappy families?

In Gotham, the first novella in the series, Australian journalist Jeff Foster is in New York to interview Na$ti Boi, a 19-year-old rapper on the rise, accompanying him and his minder on a personal shopping trip to Bloomingdale’s.

Ryan, the protagonist of Venice, has moved in with his sister Natalie and her family after being made redundant. Natalie, a sculptor (Australia’s second-most famous creator of transport-related sculptures after Patricia Piccinini) is anxiously waiting to find out if her work has been accepted into the Venice Biennale, while Ryan is left to look after Harrison, his young nephew.

Vancouver is set in the confused aftermath of September 11, 2001. With his first book just released but his book tour cancelled, Paul, a novelist, has travelled to Vancouver to meet the childhood hero who influenced his writing – the very literal literary giant who lived under Paul’s family house when he was growing up.

In Juneau, Tim has travelled from Brisbane to Alaska to support his elderly father, who has developed an obsession with uncovering the truth behind a decades-old family mystery.

And finally, in NoHo, 12-year-old Charlie finds himself alone and afraid in an art gallery in an unfamiliar area of Los Angeles while his mum and his aspiring child-star sister attend yet another audition.

What makes Wisdom Tree such a rewarding reading experience is the care Earls has taken to link the novellas together. Jeff, the narrator of Gotham, briefly mentions his friend Paul, who’s published three books and is still hoping to make it as a novelist. When we meet Paul as the narrator of Vancouver, he’s at the beginning of his career. The sculpture, entitled Family #5, that Ryan’s sister Natalie is working on in Venice is finished and on display in the gallery Charlie visits in NoHo.

Charlie is best friends with the son of Tim, the narrator of Juneau. Ryan from Venice and Tim used to work together. The mysterious relative Tim and his dad are searching for in Juneau is mentioned in a novel by Paul’s giant writer friend in Vancouver. And that’s just scraping the surface.

As well as sharing a cast of connected characters, these novellas are riddled with thematic obsessions Earls returns to again and again. All the narrators are male and from Brisbane, a city that’s present in every novella in some way, though always as a departure point to somewhere else. The Great Gatsby pops up a few times, as do the Ramones. Scenes and images are repeated and flipped, like the way Tim’s preparations for the trip into Juneau with his diabetic father are mirrored in the way Ryan prepares for a road trip with his nephew in Venice.

Vancouver is the most thematically and tonally different to the rest of the series. It’s wonderfully meta, a novella about novellas and the business of being a writer. Juneau also stands out, written in a quiet palette of greys and browns to match the early-morning city and crowds of shuffling elderly tourists Tim and his father encounter as they emerge from their cruise ship.

Choosing just one highlight is impossible, but Venice and NoHo make a compelling double act, alternating between moments of despair and dark farce, all presided over by Family #5 – Natalie’s sculpture of a perfect, loving family of anthropomorphic creatures made from reclaimed fencing, silicone and horse skulls, twisted to create the effect of two parents protecting a child. When Ryan watches the sculpture being planned in Venice he can’t help but notice this family has no place for him, an extraneous uncle who lives in the apartment under his sister’s house. When Charlie sees the completed piece in NoHo, he thinks about his own family too – his absent father and his golden-child sister.

That baby, that child-creature, was everything to its parents. […] I wonder if they’d had other children that had grown up and gone out on their own, or been pushed out. […] How would it have been if there were two young ones? How would it have worked then? Does the artist ever do that, in families one to four, or six and beyond?

You could read these five novellas in any order you like, but everything about the way they’re presented encourages you to read them as they were intended. Each book is numbered on the cover. When you finish reading, a page with all five titles has the name of the next book in the series highlighted, so you know which one to read next. Then, at the end of NoHo, the reader is directed back to Gotham to begin the series again. Why fight it?

Wry, wholehearted, hilarious – Nick Earls’ Wisdom Tree novellas offer readers five different viewpoints on what it’s like to be human. Read them, then re-read them. Every time, these novellas somehow find something new to say.

Nick Earls Wisdom Tree: Gotham, Venice, Vancouver, Juneau, and NoHo Inkerman & Blunt 2016 PB $15 each.

Michelle McLaren writes about books and is studying to work in libraries. She lives in the northern suburbs of Melbourne with her partner, two cats and too many books.

Sadly, the publisher of Wisdom Tree: Five Novellas has ceased trading, so if you want to purchase the complete set of Wisdom Tree a secondhand retailer will be your best bet. However, you can still buy three of the titles from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW:

Wisdom Tree #2 Venice here.

Wisdom Tree #4 Juneau here.

Wisdom Tree #5 NoHo here.

Alternatively you might find all five in a library. You can contact Newtown Library here.

STOP PRESS The publisher of Wisdom Tree, Donna Ward, has contacted us to say that she still has a limited number of complete sets available for purchase. If you are interested you can email her on She also advises that, contrary to what Google might say, the one-volume ‘Christmas’ edition was never published.

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