2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Stephen Orr, Wakefield Press

‘The Hands: An Australian Pastoral’ by Stephen Orr

The Hands by Stephen Orr

Fiction – Kindle edition; Wakefield Press; 260 pages; 2015.

Every now and then I pick up a book and within a matter of pages — or perhaps sentences — I know this is exactly the right kind of book for me. That’s how I felt when I started reading Stephen Orr’s The Hands: An Australian Pastoral, which was longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

The mood of the story, coupled with the great characters and economical prose style, hooked me from the start and I read it in one (very long) sitting. I rather suspect that come 31 December, it will prove to be my favourite book of the year.

Life in the outback

The story, which takes place in 2004 to 2006, is set on an isolated cattle station, overseen by Trevor Wilkie, in outback South Australia. This is how Orr describes it:

Bundeena was marginal country. It could carry cattle, sparsely. To Trevor, this was where Australia became desert, where man—following the east-west railway, before it seriously set its sights on the Nullarbor—had given up on agriculture. Most men, at least. Except for them: sixth-generation Beef Shorthorn producers who’d wrestled with the land for 130 years. This was country that hadn’t asked for farmers but had got them anyway. On the southern edge, the railway line, and to the north, nothing. They had neighbours to the east and west, but they might as well have been living in New Zealand.

Here, three generations of the Wilkie family live side by side, not always in unison. Trevor runs affairs with the help of his wife, Carelyn, and his 11-year-old son, Harry, who is educated at home via School of the Air. (Elder son Aiden is at boarding school, but comes home whenever he can.) Also living on site is Trevor’s aunt Fay, her disabled middle-aged son, Chris, and Trevor’s father, Murray, a curmudgeon who owns the title deeds but isn’t prepared to hand them over just yet — even though he’s too old to be much use around the farm any more:

The word was with Murray and Murray was the word. Not for the first time, he [Harry] could feel himself starting to hate his grandfather. There wasn’t much love or compassion in him. He was a sort of farmer shell, a hollow man full of regrets and knowledge and skills he couldn’t use any more, except as a sort of walking opinion that no one wanted to hear.

Tensions and tragedy

The story follows the Wilkie family over the course of a few years, during which everything seems to go wrong. There is tension — and later tragedy — at every turn, particularly between both sets of fathers and sons. Aiden, for instance, doesn’t see the point in continuing his education and wants to begin farming with his dad, but Trevor keeps insisting he must finish his final year or he will regret it later. Meanwhile, Murray, angry, embittered and haunted by the ghosts of the past, won’t relinquish control of the farm, even though Trevor’s been running it almost single-handedly for years.

These familial disputes are played out against a backdrop of ongoing drought (six years and counting), of ever-diminishing returns and ever-increasing debt, which makes the pressure on the Wilkie’s, in particular Trevor, almost unbearable. There is a very real sense of despair just hovering in the peripheral vision of most of these characters; they know it’s there but refuse to see it. Instead, they blindly plough on, distracting themselves with the routine of running a farm and trying not to think too much about the future.

And yet, with every farming family, the future is paramount, for it is the children of farmers who are expected to carry on the business and, unusually, in this case, there is one father (Murray) who is reluctant to pass his legacy on and one son (Aiden) who is desperate to do what so many of his generation do not want to do — to make a living on the land. And there’s also concern about what to do with Chris if anything happens to Fay, who is now in her 70s: should the family continue to look after him or put him in a nursing home?

Yet despite the drama that propels the narrative forward, this is not a heavy book. Orr writes with a skilful lightness of touch, punctuating his quietly subdued prose with understated humour and restrained emotion.

Brilliant characters

The characterisation in this book is its real strength — the story is told from multiple, mainly male, perspectives across three generations, and each strong, distinctive voice, whether it be an 11-year-old’s, a teenage boy’s, a middle-aged farmer’s or an angry, bitter grandfather’s, seems palpably real and authentic. You get a real sense for each individual — and you are either charmed or irritated by them. Even Chris, a “forty-six-year-old man-boy”, is given enough quirky detail  — a flair for taking off his clothes, a penchant for watching old war movies, a willingness to use the garden shears — to give the reader a vivid portrait of someone who could so easily have been drawn as mere caricature.

But, of course, it’s how the characters develop, change and grow over this rather turbulent few years that gives the book its momentum and its compelling, page-turning quality. There was something about this book — the all-encompassing portrait of one family living in rural isolation — that transfixed me from start to finish, almost as if I had accompanied them on this emotional journey, perhaps sitting in the farm truck as it made its rounds fixing fences or checking on cattle. I love it when you get so involved with the characters you forget you are actually reading a book.

Anyone who is a fan of the late American writer Kent Haruf (who is one of my favourite authors) will find plenty to like here, because the style — restrained and elegant — and the theme — of farming families doing it tough — is similar, albeit with an Australian outback twist. I was especially reminded of Haruf’s debut novel The Ties that Bind and his bestselling Plainsong. If that’s not an incentive to check out Stephen Orr, I don’t know what is…

For other takes on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZ LitLovers and Sue’s at Whispering Gums.

Update 31 October: French blogger Emma, from Book Around the Corner, has also reviewed it.

The Hands: An Australian Pastoral has only been published in Australia, but UK readers can buy the (pricey) paperback edition, via the Book Depository, or the Kindle edition, via Amazon, for less than a fiver.  US and Canadian readers can only buy the Kindle edition, via Amazon.

This is my 44th book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

Africa, Author, Book review, Doris Lessing, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Grass is Singing’ by Doris Lessing

The-grass-is-singing

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 208 pages; 2013.

The Grass is Singing, originally published in 1950, was Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing‘s debut novel. It brims with tension and shimmers with insight into race relations, colonialism, marriage and rural life in what was then Southern Rhodesia.

Murder mystery

This astonishingly confident book opens in unconventional, some might say brash, style, in the form of a newspaper story by a “special correspondent”:

Mary Turner, wife of Richard Turner, a farmer at Ngesi, was found murdered on the front verandah of their homestead yesterday morning. The houseboy, who has been arrested, has confessed to the crime. No motive has been discovered. It is thought he was in search of valuables.

The first (shocking) chapter charts what happens immediately following the discovery of the body — a muddled confusion of white colonial types acting as judge, jury and executioner. But then the narrative takes an interesting twist and what starts off as a murder mystery becomes the story of how the woman came to live in the area several decades earlier.

The woman — Mary — was once bright, young and independent, living a relatively carefree life in the city. But then, with the clock ticking, she succumbed to social convention and got married, despite the fact she had never felt the need to have a partner and was frightened of sex (in today’s parlance we would probably describe her as “asexual”). Her husband, Dick Turner, is a struggling farmer, who whisks her away to the bush, where she is expected to live a life of rural isolation in a shabby “shack”, running the household and managing the black servant who cooks and cleans for the couple.

This is a shock to Mary’s system, a town girl used to leading a busy work and social life, who must now spend a lot of time alone, in the bush, where the heat is unbearable and her living conditions impoverished. She only sees her husband at breakfast and supper (he spends the intervening hours out in the field running the farm) and she struggles to cope with managing the houseboy, whom she abuses and treats with disdain:

She had never come into contact with natives before, as an employer on her own account. Her mother’s servants she had been forbidden to talk to; in the club she had been kind to the waiters; but the ‘native problem’ meant for her other women’s complaints of their servants at tea parties. She was afraid of them, of course. Every woman in South Africa is brought up to be. In her childhood she had been forbidden to walk out alone and when she had asked why, she had been told in the furtive, lowered, but matter-of-fact voice she associated with her mother, that they were nasty and might do horrible things to her.

Unfortunately, she can’t seem to control her temper and fires a succession of houseboys, one after the other. This frustrates Dick, who bemoans her lack of consideration and tact, and wonders if something is wrong:

What was the matter with her? With him she seemed at ease, quiet, almost maternal. With the natives she was a virago.

But this works both ways, for Mary wonders what is wrong with Dick, whom she soon realises is hopeless with money and hopeless at farming. When she sticks her nose in to help him at one stage, she reaps success, but later, for some inexplicable reason, she gives up and a deep-seated ennui sets in. This later turns into something akin to a kind of madness, which is heartbreaking — and frightening — to follow in the pages of this short novel.

Race relations

As you can probably tell, there’s a lot going on in this book (which is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die — you can see reviews of all the other books I’ve read and reviewed from his helpful guide here). The relationship between Mary and Dick, especially as it begins to unravel over time, is intriguing and sharply observed, but it is the relationship they each have with the natives — Dick considerate, if exploitative; Mary, harsh and belittling — that makes the book such a thought-provoking read about relations between black and white.

And the mystery element of the story makes it a compelling read. Because you know from the outset that Mary meets a violent end, you’re waiting for the moment that might indicate a motivation for her murder: is it something she does or says to the houseboy? Or is it something else entirely? (I chose this book for our book group and we all had different theories — it is certainly not cut and dried.)

Finally, I can’t finish this review without mentioning Lessing’s prose style, which is simple and clean, but often dressed with quietly beautiful phrases. Indeed, I underlined so many passages in my copy, I’m only grateful it was an ebook; a paper edition might not have survived all the pen marks! This is a good example:

It was a wet, sultry morning. The sky was a tumult of discoloured clouds: it looked full of billowing dirty washing. Puddles on the pale soil held a sheen of sky.

 

Author, Book review, Cynan Jones, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK, Wales

‘The Long Dry’ by Cynan Jones

The-Long-Dry

Fiction – paperback; Granta; 104 pages; 2014.

Earlier this year I read Cynan Jones’ extraordinarily powerful novel The Dig and was so impressed I quickly sought out his first book, The Long Dry, which was published in 2006 and won a Betty Trask Award the following year. Cut from similar cloth as The Dig, it depicts a world that is earthy, rough and rugged but it is written in such lyrical pared-back language it practically sings with the beauty of the rural landscape in which it is set.

A lost cow

Set over the course of a single day, it tells the tale of a farmer looking for a missing cow. But this is much more than a simple search-and-rescue mission, for as Gareth searches the parched fields we learn about his hopes, his dreams and the love he has for his wife and children.

Central to this is Gareth’s connection to the land — he is a second generation farmer, having inherited the farm from his father who bought it after the war because he no longer wanted to work in a bank — and his community, including Bill, the simple-minded neighbour who was given a few acres of the farm by Gareth’s father, for whom he feels responsible.

We also hear from the wife — in brief, first-person snippets — who is worried that she’s no longer sexually desirable, suffers headaches and depression, and has a dark secret of which she is very much ashamed.

Then there’s the teenage son, who’s more interested in having fun than carrying out his tasks in any kind of responsible way, and the young daughter, Emmy, wise beyond her years and very much-loved and doted on by her father.

And finally, the lost cow’s wanderings — she is heavily pregnant, which is why it is so important for Gareth to find her — are threaded into the narrative, which is punctuated by little fragmentary set pieces, mini-stories within the story, that showcase life and death on the farm.

Nature writing

The Long Dry is very much a paean to nature, which is beautifully evoked in simple yet vivid descriptions, occasionally using unexpected words that not so much as confront the reader but check that you’re paying attention:

Damselflies and strong white butterflies, delicate as hell, are everywhere around the pond, and machine-like dragonflies hit smaller insects in the air as they fly. The reeds are flowering with their strange crests and on the island in the middle of the pond the willow herb is starting to come to seed, and the thistles.

There’s also some unexpected humour, too:

People are seduced by ducks: by their seeming placidity. They fall for the apparent imbecility of their smiles and their quietly lunatic quacking. But they are dangerous things which plot, like functioning addicts. In the local town — a beautiful Georgian harbour town which is not lazy and which is very colourful — the ducks got out of hand. […] If you tried to drink a quiet pint on the harbour the ducks were there and they sat squatly and looked up at you and seemed to chuckle superciliously, which was off-putting. If you put your washing out, somehow the ducks knew, and by some defiance of physics managed to crap on it. And duck crap isn’t nice. It’s green like baby-shit. If you fed a baby on broccoli for a week.

But mostly this is a tiny book packed with startling little moments and quietly devastating revelations — mainly about the farmer’s wife and the couple’s young daughter — that come out of the blue and turn the entire story on its head.

The Long Dry is beautiful and sad, poignant and often quirky, but full of human empathy. It constantly spins and shimmers and dances along the very fine line between sex and death — this book brims with both — and the way in which we are all essentially animalistic, in our basic needs, our desires and our behaviour. It explores the fragility of life, of holding on to happiness and how tragedy can strike at any moment. And it’s filled with vivid, sometimes unsettling, imagery that lives on in the mind long after the book has been put down.

It is, quite frankly, an extraordinary achievement to do so much in such a slim volume. I’ll be holding on to this one to read again…

Author, Book review, Cynan Jones, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK, Wales

‘The Dig’ Cynan Jones

The-Dig

Fiction – hardcover; Granta; 160 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Visceral. Violent. Compelling. Those are the first three words that spring to mind when I think of Cynan JonesThe Dig, a muscular little novel that is so powerful as to be Herculean.

Set in a Welsh farming community, it could be described as a “rural novel”, but it’s not the bucolic countryside so often depicted in literature. This is nature red in tooth and claw. It feels earthy, rough, rugged — and realistic. Anyone who’s grown up on a farm or in a farming community will recognise the life and landscape depicted here, even if they might not recognise or be familiar with the illegal activities at the heart of the story.

Good vs evil?

The Dig pits two men against each other: Daniel is a sheep farmer; the other, who is referred to throughout as “the big man”, is a ratting man who keeps dogs for pest control.

The big man has a dubious, never-quite-explained criminal history (all we know is that he has firearms offences and a long-ago record for assault) and is currently involved in prohibited activities: he traps badgers, a protected species, for use in badger baiting. This is a cruel and illegal activity in which a badger is put in a pit with a dog and left to fight it out (usually resulting in the death of the badger) for the purposes of “entertainment” and gambling.

Jones’ descriptions of these activities are brutal and stomach-churning, leaving little to the imagination (the one that follows is relatively mild, but will give you an inkling):

The big man took the sack over and dumped it on the table which shook the badger into life so it scuffed on the table and rocked it. A can of beer went over to laughter as they held the table steady and then he punched the badger and it seemed to go still and there was a sense of immediate respect and dislike for him. It’s a big, heavy boar, he said. Then they tipped the badger into the pit.

But The Dig isn’t solely a bloodthirsty, vicious tale, however, because Jones carefully balances this aggressive narrative with a tender love story that shows us the farmer’s softer side. He’s a man who’s constantly holding his emotions in check, even though it’s clear he feels things deeply and his life has been marked by loss.

Beautiful prose

In my opinion, the real strength of the story is the prose style. It is immediate, stripped back, lyrical and, occasionally, hard-hitting, and often reminded me of the Irish writers I love so much. It’s something to do with the incisive way Jones has of getting to the heart of an emotion or a subject using a bare minimum of works in a rhythmic way — his sentences practically sing. And then, every so often, he crafts a sentence that also dances:

A singular moth flutters in through the wind baffles to the naked bulb above the kettle, cuspid, a drifting piece of loose ash on the white filament, paper burnt up, caught in the rising current from some fire unseen, unfelt.

The entire book is also brimful of beautiful descriptions of nature and the weather — in fact, if I underlined all the ones I admired, I’d end up defacing every second paragraph:

It was brewing to rain again, the sky bruising up and coming in from the sea.

An intense read

The Dig is an intense and immersive reading experience — on so many different levels: in its use of language, its characterisation and its depiction of rural life and crime. It is genuinely shocking in places, but it’s also heart-rending. There were times when it made me feel sick, occasionally I wanted to cry, mostly I felt my heartbeat escalating in fear of what was about to happen next.

It is dark and thrilling, definitely not for those with a weak disposition, and left a marked impression on me.  I have no doubt that even though it was the first book I read this year, I already know it will be in my Top 10 for 2015. I’ve already gone out and bought Cynan Jones‘ entire back catalogue…

To see what other bloggers thought of this novel, please see the reviews at Savidge Reads, Farm Lane Books Blog and Asylum.

UPDATE: Thanks to Mary Mayfield for pointing me to this great interview with the author on her blog.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Kent Haruf, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Tie That Binds’ by Kent Haruf

The-tie-that-binds

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 248 pages; 2002. 

When I first “discovered” American author Kent Haruf last year, I was so enamoured of his 1999 novel Plainsong that I promptly ordered his entire back catalogue. He wasn’t a particularly prolific author, so this meant I only had to buy a handful of titles.

Sadly, he died earlier this month, which is one reason I decided to pull The Tie That Binds from my shelf. First published in 1984, it was Haruf’s debut novel — and what an extraordinary novel it is.

Colarado setting

Set in the high plains of Colorado, just seven miles from the fictional town of Holt which features in all of Haruf’s novels, the book tells the tale of a pioneering farming family, the patriarch of which is a rather angry, embittered man called Roy Goodnough who comes from Iowa.

But the story is not about Roy per se nor his delicate wife, Ada, but his daughter, Edith, who is born on the farm and spends her entire life on it, never having had the opportunity to marry or even leave home. When the book opens she’s 80 years old, lying in hospital on an IV drip, with a police guard at the door. She’s been charged with murder, but the reader doesn’t know who she’s murdered — or why.

That’s where our narrator comes in to fill the gaps.

Most of what I’m going to tell you, I know. The rest of it, I believe.

The narrator is Sanders Roscoe and he’s Edith’s neighbour, whom he knows well (once-upon-a-time his father asked Edith to marry him but Roy Goodnough was against it). In his intimate bar-room raconteur voice, Sanders spools right back to the start — before Edith was even born — to explain how events over the course of almost a century lead to the current situation.

A domineering father

It’s a beautifully rendered tale that shows how circumstances “fixed” Edith and her younger brother, Lyman, to live quiet, some might say dull, lives under the thumb of a cruel man from whom they could not escape.

Despite the strong sense of community and neighbourliness that surrounds them, the Goodnoughs must get by as best they can — resisting, wherever possible, dependence on anyone else but themselves, and all carried out against the backdrop of a harsh but beautiful landscape.

What they found when they got here — and I don’t believe Ada ever got over the shock of it — was a flat, treeless, dry place that had once belonged to Indians. It was a hell of a big piece of sandy country, with a horizon that in every direction must have seemed then — to someone who didn’t know how to look at this country and before Henry Ford and paved highways diminished it just a little  — to reach forever away under a sky in summer that didn’t give much of a good goddamn whether or not the bags of corn seed Roy was going to plant in some of that sand ever amounted to a piddling thing, and a sky in winter that, even if it was as blue as picture books said it should be and as high and bright as anybody could hope for, still didn’t care whether or not the frame house Roy was going to build ever managed to keep the snow from blowing in on Ada’s sewing machine.

Rural hardship

Through Sanders lovingly crafted narrative — angry one moment, disbelieving the next, but always fiercely defensive of Edith and her motivations — Haruf depicts the loneliness and hardship of rural life, as well as the untold sacrifices Edith makes for her father and brother. There’s an aching sadness to this grand sweeping drama but it’s tempered by gentle humour, little triumphs and quiet moments of joy.  And it shows how one woman’s steely determination and fortitude sustains her through good times and bad.

Like Haruf’s Holt trilogy — PlainsongEventide and Benediction — this is a deeply affecting tale, written in precise yet gentle prose, about living on the land. This sympathetic portrayal of an elderly woman who’s lead a tough and unremarkable life is by turns heartbreaking and uplifting.

I got so drawn into the intimate narrative that I lost all sense of time; The Tie That Binds is a wonderful novel that deserves a wide readership. If you loved Plainsong, this one won’t disappoint — and if you’ve never read Haruf before, this is the perfect introduction.