Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 240 pages; 1999.
There’s no doubt that David Malouf is one of Australia’s finest writers — and Harland’s Half Acre, first published in 1984, is testament to that. I read it wholly absorbed by the story within, but mostly enamoured of the lush, beautifully evoked prose that marks Malouf as a true literary giant.
This novel is one of those “great epics” that charts one man’s life from cradle to grave and in doing so tells the story of Australia’s history in microcosm from before the Great War to the late 20th century. At its heart is a moral certainty about the ways in which people can rise above their circumstances to follow their dreams, and the challenges associated with leading an artistic and unconventional life, especially at a time when Australian art was viewed as second-class compared with almost anything coming out of Europe.
A second chance
When the book opens we meet a young Frank Harland living in a single-roomed shack in the Queensland bush. He’s only a toddler. His mother has died, leaving his father, Clem, a widower at the age of 23 with two young sons to raise. Clem doesn’t waste time getting remarried, and when his new wife falls pregnant, Frank, who has become a bit of a handful, is sent away to live with Clem’s older sister on a farm.
The first nights, waking to a strange darkness, he had felt panic. Reaching out for Jim [his older brother] or for his father in the big cool spaces he had found nothing but sheet; though it would have been scarier of course if he had found the body of the cousin he had never seen, who was dead on the far side of the world, but whose shirts, all mended and ironed, hung in the wardrobe against the wall, and whose spirit haunted so much here.
What seems such a cruel decision — to send him away to unfamiliar relatives, depriving him of the warmth and love of his siblings, including three half-brothers that follow later — is, in fact, a saving grace for Frank. It is here, in the loneliness of a seven-roomed house, amid the quiet grief of his Aunt Else and Uncle Jack, that Frank first learns to draw. It’s a talent that sustains him for the rest of his life.
When, as a teenager, he visits Brisbane, a pile of paintings under his arm to show to an art dealer, the path of Frank’s adult life looks assured. He gains employment as a copywriter and lives a frugal existence in a shabby boarding house in order to send money home for the education of the half brothers he barely knows.
But then the Great Depression hits, and gentle, kind-hearted, dignified Frank has nowhere left to go. His big dream — to buy back the land his ancestors had lost through gambling and mismanagement — seems unlikely to be realised…
His lawyer’s story
Harland’s Half Acre is not just about Frank Harland, however. There’s a twin narrative that alternates with Frank’s story, and this follows the life of Phil Vernon, who comes from a much more privileged background than Frank. Phil is considerably younger, but their lives intersect when Phil’s father, a Brisbane dandy with money to spend, buys one of Frank’s paintings.
Phil lives in a big house, which is constantly filled with relatives, including a dying grandfather, whom he keeps company, and a domineering grandmother. His story, which is in the first person (unlike Frank’s, which is narrated in the third person), is told from the perspective of an adult looking back on his childhood as he tries to make sense of the artist he knew, loved and, eventually, came to work for — as the lawyer who sorted out his legal affairs. What was it that made Frank so unconventional, prepared to live in impoverished conditions, but always so well-mannered and not bothered by success? And how had the pair become friends?
Why me? I never did understand that. But his shyness, his gradual unveiling of himself to me as I was allowed to shake out of him the last details of what he wanted and what he was, the softness of the man under the scratchy exterior, his real innocence beyond the slyness and crude native wit, all this touched as well as exasperated, and without ever feeling sure of my ground, I grew fond of him, as I believe he was of me.
A tumultuous life
This is one of those lush, wholly absorbing stories about one man’s life that gets under the skin and leaves an indelible mark, perhaps because it’s so filled with messy, tumultuous detail and doesn’t shy away from harsh realities. At times it is heartbreaking to read.
It reminded me very much of Patrick White’s extraordinary novel about a successful artist, The Vivisector, while the first chapter, which records Frank’s childhood in such wonderful detail, brought to mind James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But no matter which way you look at it, Harland’s Half Acre is a wonderfully realised tale about the pursuit of dreams, artistic (and emotional) expression and the ties that bind.
For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s (much more perceptive) review at ANZ LitLovers.
The author is widely published, so UK and US readers should have no trouble getting hold of this one — though you might have to place a special order.
This is my 21st book for #ReadingAustralia2016.