Fiction – paperback; Picador; 256 pages; 2005.
Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living is a luminous, sparsely written but wonderfully evocative novel set in rural Australia during the 1930s.
Jean, the 23-year-old narrator, is a seamstress instructor on board the government-sponsored ‘Better Farming Train’ that trundles through agricultural districts espousing wisdom on everything from chicken-sexing to baking cakes.
Her colleagues comprise a wonderful mix of eccentric characters which include the matronly infant welfare teacher Sister Crock, the cooking lecturer Mary Maloney, the Japanese chicken-sexer Mr Ohno and the Yorkshire-born ‘agrostologist – a specialist in soil and crop’, Robert Pettergree.
When Jean enters an erotically charged romance with Robert it looks like she is going to live happily ever after. They leave the train, get married and set up home in the Mallee, a wheat-growing region of western Victoria. Together they set out to prove that Robert’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, an article he penned for an agricultural journal, really do convert low-yielding paddocks into rich, productive ones.
But when the local farmers don’t appreciate this new scientific way of thinking, it looks like their efforts may be doomed. Throw in a never-ending drought, the Depression and a looming war, is it any wonder Jean’s new-found happiness soon begins to wear thin? But ultimately it is her marriage that self-combusts because Robert is too emotionally distant to recognise his own – and science’s -limitations…
I read Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living in two short sittings. It’s an easy read, helped in part by the narrator’s delightfully simple voice, which is naive, sometimes pained and at other times full of the wonder of life.
Tiffany’s assured writing perfectly captures the Australian landscape and the era within which the story is set. (I wooped with joy when she name-checked several places in South Gippsland that I know oh-so well.)
And despite the bareness of the prose, her eye for detail manages to convey so much in just a few short words. There’s a lot going on here, so much so I’m tempted to read this book again to see what I missed first time round.
The book is full of quietly understated moments but it’s the tear-inducing emotional punches that deliver the poignancy without sentimentality that makes the story so memorable.
My only quibble is that the narrative seems a little directionless and needs more structure to move the reader along, but that’s a small price to pay for a gorgeous little book that captures the Australian melancholy so effectively. A worthy contender for this year’s Orange Prize.