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.

Australia, Author, Book review, Cate Kennedy, Fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, short stories

‘Like a House on Fire’ by Cate Kennedy

Like-a-house-on-fire

Fiction – paperback; Scribe; 288 pages; 2012.

A couple of years ago I read Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath, which won the People’s Choice Award in the NSW Literary Awards in 2010. Set in Tasmania, it was about a divorced couple who had been involved in the Franklin River Blockade of 1982/83, in which a group of non-violent protesters occupied a proposed dam site in a World Heritage site.

But Kennedy isn’t just an award-winning novelist. She has produced several poetry collections — one of which won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry in 2011 — and a travel memoir.

She is also an accomplished short story writer — her first collection, Dark Roots, was shortlisted for the Steele Rudd award in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards (before they got axed) and the prestigious ALS Gold Medal. Her latest collection of short stories, Like a House on Fire, was shortlisted for last year’s inaugural Stella Prize.

Life and love

Like a House on Fire brings together 15 short but powerful stories, many of them set in rural Australia, and all of them about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances.

There’s Frank, paralysed after a tractor accident, who resents his wife running his farm without him (Flexion); Rebecca, who spends her sick leave cyberstalking an old lover only to discover she’s got the wrong man (Cross-Country); and the pregnant woman dreading her next ultrasound because one time her doctor told her, “I’m so sorry I can’t see a heartbeat” (Waiting).

The stories all explore the darker side of life, the tragedies, illnesses, disappointments and broken hearts we all confront at one time or another. But it’s not a depressing collection. Kennedy is very good at shining a light on the best of human nature and how small acts of kindness can give us the strength required to carry on. It’s the fleeting moments — a tender touch on an arm by a medical practitioner, the unexpected offer of help from a neighbour — which are often the most powerful.

Poignant is the first word to spring to mind to describe the collection as a whole, but Like a House on Fire is also funny (in places), uplifting and life-affirming. I’m not a massive fan of short stories, but I loved every single one in this book.

Australia, Author, Book review, Carrie Tiffany, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Mateship with Birds’ by Carrie Tiffany

Mateship-with-birds

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 224 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Carrie Tiffany’s second novel, Mateship with Birds, has been nominated for numerous prizes, including the Stella Prize, the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Miles Franklin Literary Award. I chose to read it on the strength of her debut novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, which was published in 2005.

Rural Australia

Mateship with Birds is set in rural Australia in the 1950s. It’s a character-driven novel about two lonely people — Harry, a dairy farmer whose wife ran off with another man, and Betty, a single mother raising two children, Michael and Little Hazel — who live next door to each other. The over-riding question is this: when will the two of them get their acts together and transform their friendship into something rather more, well — how shall we say this — sexual?

This rather thin plot line is interspersed with Harry’s observations of a raucous family of kookaburras, which live on his farm. In these iconic birds, he sees the kind of love and interaction he, too, would like to experience — and it is this theme which forms the hub of the novel: what is it that makes a family?

But the novel also centres on sex — to an almost obsessive degree. Mues, a local farmer, exposes himself to Little Hazel; Betty masturbates after work; a patient in the local nursing home (where Betty is employed as an aged-care nurse) plays with his “limp cock” — and this is all by page 45 of my edition. To take it up a level, Harry decides to teach young Michael the finer points of sex education, some of which he writes in letter form to save the embarrassment of conversation. These outpourings are very frank and occasionally very funny.

Vividly descriptive

One of the things I most liked about the book is the delicious descriptions of people, places, nature and birdlife. And having grown up in dairy farming country — albeit much further south than the area of Australia depicted here — I especially loved the way Tiffany conveyed what it is like to live and work on a diary farm. This is not a bucolic view, but completely authentic and real, right down to every last unpleasant detail.

Dairy pastures are difficult to establish in gullies where there is seepage and drainage. They drift like continents; their hides are maps of uncharted countries. Keep the herd on dry ground through the winter. Sunlight shines ginger through their ears. Plant shelterbelts to reduce wind speed. Elastic ropes of snot hang from their nostrils; their hocks are stuck with shit.

The characters are also wonderfully drawn: Betty is desperately lonely and sad, watching herself and her body slide into perceived decay; Harry is an old romantic and rather kind and tender; Mues is appropriately creepy; and the children are inquisitive and naive in the way that only children of that era (before TV, the internet and mobile phones) could be.

Tiffany’s prose style is always interesting. She writes in a minimalist easy-to-understand way (the product of being a rural reporter, no doubt), but finds creative ways to play with the language — for example, “his tongue tasted curdled in his mouth”; a white dress has a “thick, expensive lustre, like icing on a fancy cake”; and two huntsman spiders “prowl Harry’s bedroom ceiling” in “opposing corners like boxers waiting on the bell”.

Harry’s bird watching notes written in an old milk ledger also read like poetry and are typeset in stanzas to convey that impression even more so.

Too much sex

But while there is much to admire about Mateship with Birds, I found that the constant sexual references, allusions and metaphors got in the way of the story. They clogged up the narrative like tipper trucks on suburban streets — a hulking presence that simply could not be avoided. And once you noticed them, they were everywhere.

If I was to sum up the novel in one word, it would be this: quirky.

To see what others think of this book, do check out Naomi’s review on The Writes of Woman, Tony’s on Tony’s Reading List and Lisa’s on ANZ LitLovers.

Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Tivington Nott’ by Alex Miller

Tivington-Nott

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 180 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It somehow seems appropriate to post this review on the day of the Grand National, a horse race over jumps that has its roots in both hunting and steeplechasing (in which farmers would race their horses from one church steeple to another, jumping over ditches, hedges and whatever else happened to get in the way as they did so). Whatever you think of the National, there’s no doubt that it demonstrates the superb athleticism of the horse. It also demonstrates the special relationship between horse and rider — how the two can work as one to achieve great feats of courage and stamina.

That’s one of the central themes of Alex Miller‘s debut novel, The Tivington Nott, which was first published in 1989, but has just been made available to British readers for the first time thanks to a reprint by the publisher Allen & Unwin UK. It is an extraordinarily vivid account of one young man’s participation in a stag hunt on the Exmoor borders and is filled with beautiful descriptions of Nature and the countryside — “the last ancient homeland of the wild red deer in England” — as well as depicting the bond between horse and rider like nothing I have ever read before.

An outsider’s view

The story is set in 1952 on a farm in Somerset, where the unnamed narrator is a teenage labourer from London struggling to fit in. The first part of the novel sets out to describe how he is at odds with everyone around him — he refuses to call his boss master as tradition dictates, gets bullied by local labourers and is viewed with disdain by the farmer’s wife (“Mrs Roly-Poly”) who believes “boys from London cannot be trusted”.

The only person with whom he should feel some affinity is another outsider, Major Fred Alsop, a retired Australian army officer trying too hard to be accepted by the locals who secretly despise him. The Major wears the attire of the landed gentry, talks too loudly and goes about as if he owns the place (“An Australian horseman in fancy dress prancing around on Exmoor. Out of a book, this bloke. A tourist!”). But even our narrator cannot fail to notice that the Major will never fit in —  he is tolerated because he has a rather impressive, and much sought-after, black stallion imported from Australia called Kabara.

It is Kabara that forms the bridging link between the first part of the story and the (far larger) second part, because our narrator ends up riding the stallion in the stag hunt, which is so evocatively described that you feel as if you are right there in the saddle with him.

Based on real people and events

Alex Miller makes no secret that this book is largely autobiographical — he, too, was a farm labourer in West Somerset when he was 15, before he emigrated to Australia alone when he was 17 . His “author’s note” at the front of my edition claims that all the characters are based on real people and that he even used some of their real names.

This probably explains why the novel feels so authentic and “animated”. You get such a sense of the claustrophobic closed social system in which he finds himself that it’s hard not to share his loneliness and alienation. And it’s easy to understand why he so identifies with Kabara, a gutsy stallion who defies the odds to compete with other horses more used to challenging West Country terrain than him, and the “Tivington nott”, a local stag that has no antlers rumoured to live in the area.

What I loved most about the book was the sense of adventure and excitement it conveys as the narrator rides second horse to the stag hunt. Every little moment of the chase is recorded — the uphill battles, the treacherous descents, the death-defying jumps — so that most of the time your heart is in your throat willing him to stay on the horse and keep in sight of the hounds. And all the time Miller is conscious of conveying the mysterious beauty of the natural world.

In front of me the wide silent ride winds deep into the dark green and dun shadows of the ancient woods. I peer down this track, shaded and thick on either side with bracken and underbrush. A bird is calling repeatedly in there; a sharp short urgent sound, again and again. Then it stops and everything is silent and still around me. Those great dogs are in there too, somewhere. They are intently unravelling the labyrinth of animal scents, some of them perhaps staying true to the peculiar signature of the Haddon stag, approaching his secret lair, working the complex line closer to him by the minute.

Threaded into this thrilling narrative are little insights into various characters — the houndsman Grabbe, the whipper-in Matthew Tolland, the red-coated huntsman Perry, the chairman of the Hunt Damages Committee Harry Cheyne and the master of the hunt, Mrs Grant, among others — so that a well rounded picture of this close-knit community, where class and social standing is everything, is evoked.

But this is not just a fast-paced spinetingling read: the conclusion is a deeply moving one as our narrator realises Kabara has found his place, but he still hasn’t quite found his…

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Ross Raisin, Setting

‘God’s Own Country’ by Ross Raisin

Gods_own_country

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 211 pages; 2009.

Ross Raisin’s debut novel, God’s Own Country, is about a troubled young Yorkshire farmer who develops a friendship with a teenage girl and runs away with her. It turns the notion of pastoral literature on its head, and is a compelling mix of adventure, Gothic romance and black comedy. Mostly, it is a very disturbing and unsettling read.

No ordinary man

The story is narrated by 19-year-old Sam Marsdyke, who lives on the family farm with his mum and dad. From the outset, we know that Sam is not an ordinary young man — he delights in throwing stones at ramblers, whom he describes as “daft sods”. Later, we learn that he despises “towns”, those people who move from the city to live in rural Yorkshire, because “they couldn’t give a stuff for the Moors, all they wanted was a postcard view out of the bedroom window”.

There are other, darker, elements to his character, which the reader discovers the further you get into the novel (I won’t mention them here, to prevent spoiling the plot, suffice to say they are quite shocking). And as the narrative slowly unfolds, so, too, does Sam’s hold on reality.

And while there’s a menacing undertone to this book, Sam is sympathetically drawn. He has a deep love of the countryside (the descriptions of the moors are particularly vivid) and a love and respect for the livestock he tends. He has an especially tender relationship with a puppy, whom he dotes on.

Black comedy

The story is not without humour. And because it is written in a regional dialect, it ties the narrative to a specific place and imbues it with a real sense of authenticity. The use of language is inventive — a Labrador jumps up onto a gate and “jowled the top of it with drool”, a breeze is “chirring through the trees”,  there’s a “hubbleshoo of small boys spewing out the bus” — and Raisin effortlessly brings scenes to life in gorgeously crafted sentences, such as this one:

Father took hold the wire and wrenched it up. A shimmer of raindrops spring out, arching a rainbow an instant, till they fell to the sod and he began pulling the wire off his post with his hands.

God’s Own Country — the title refers to the beauty of the North York Moors — is best appreciated when read in large chunks, as opposed to a chapter here and a chapter there. It takes a good while for any narrative tension to build, but the patient reader is amply rewarded when Sam goes on the run with the teenage girl who has moved in next door. But the story does get quite confusing towards the end, a reflection of the state of Sam’s mind at the time.

It reminded me very much of Patrick McCabe’s Butcher Boy and even MJ Hyland’s This is How, both of which are far stronger (and more disturbing) novels featuring deeply troubled male narrators, but as a first-time novelist it marks Raisin as an exciting new talent.

God’s Own Country won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award in 2009, The Guildford Book Festival First Novel Award in 2008 and a Betty Trask Award in 2008. It was shortlisted for a host of other awards, including The Guardian First Book Award and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Gillian Mears, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Foal’s Bread’ by Gillian Mears

Foal's-Bread

Fiction – Kindle edition; Allen & Unwin; 368 pages; 2011.

A book about horses would not normally be my cup of tea (a startling admission for anyone who knows my professional background, shhhh, please don’t tell), but Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread — her first novel in 16 years — is more than just a story about equines.

A story about love, sex, joy, sadness…

It’s a story about love, sex, joy, sadness, jealousy and ambition. It’s about complicated families and the ways in which history often repeats itself within those families. It’s about the hardship of living on the land in the years between the wars, of milking cows and breeding horses, despite floods, drought and raging bush fires. But above all it’s about aspiring to better things — and chasing dreams.

When the book opens we meet 14-year-old Noah, a tomboy, and her father, Cecil, as the pair are coming to the end of a two-week job — driving a mob of pigs to market via horseback. It’s 1926 and the setting is rural New South Wales.

We soon learn that Noah has a love of horses and, specifically, of jumping them over high jumps — what we now tend to call “puissance” — on the equestrian showjumping circuit. And once the pigs have been loaded onto the boat that will take them to market in Sydney, Noah will be free to compete in the ladies’ highjump at Port Lake Show; her dad will compete in the men’s equivalent.

A shameful secret

But first the reader is let in on a shameful and sordid secret: Noah is pregnant and her Uncle Nipper, who has just died, aged 80, is the father. While her dad is off boozing in town for the evening, Noah gives birth alone in their camp by a creek with only the “pigs watching what was coming out from between her own legs”.

As an opening to a novel, this is quite a confronting — and shocking — scene. Even more so, when Noah just gets on with it, wraps the “rag doll” in a shirt, plants a kiss on its face, puts it in a butter box and sends it down river, never to be seen again.

A kind of triumphant relief was sweeping through her that it was done, the baby gone. She couldn’t realise that for the rest of her life she’d be watching Flaggy Creek spinning away from her, the fast waters making it disappear like a little bend-and-flag pony that’s forgotten to take the final turn.

All is not lost, however, because a week later Noah meets the man who becomes the love of her life: Rowley — known as Roley — Nancarrow, an Australian showjumping champion. He presents her with a foal’s bread, a bread-shaped piece of placenta that some foals have in their mouths when they are born, which is dried out as a good luck charm.

“In a high-jump foal, it’s a sure sign he’ll go to the heights’ for a galloper, fast,” explains Roley.

The charm works — for a little while, anyway. The pair marry, have children, set up home on the Nancarrow family farm and make plans to start their own showjumping team.

Grand sweeping drama

But in the tradition of grand sweeping dramas, life does not play out the way both Noah and gentle, kind-hearted Roley plan. Curve balls come in the form of a fiercely jealous and bullying mother-in-law, who does her best to drive a wedge between her son and Noah. One of their children is born disabled. And Roley, who survives a lightning strike, develops a numbness in his feet and legs which puts an end to his showjumping career.

There comes a point when Noah must run the farm unaided and this is when her emotional problems, so long repressed, manifest themselves in violent outbursts — usually directed at her horses, whom she treats cruelly — and alcoholic binges.

This probably sounds like a soap opera, but Mears refrains from emotionally manipulating the reader. Indeed, the novel is completely free of sentiment, but somehow, in giving her narrative such a strong sense of time and place, you get so caught up in the mood of Foal’s Bread that it’s hard not to care for the people she writes about. Yes, it’s a sad story (Lisa, from ANZLitLovers, says Foal’s Bread is not a book to ‘enjoy’”) — but there’s something about it that makes it a compelling read.

No neat solutions

What I admire most about Mears’ skill as a writer is that she never succumbs to offering her characters neat solutions. They are left to flounder, to muddle along; they feel flesh-and-blood real. The Nancarrow family are not great communicators. No one ever explains how they are feeling. But the way the characters talk — in a stilted, old-fashioned vernacular — seems to fit the mood of the story.

As much as I enjoyed following the trials and tribulations of this complicated, strange family, I was occasionally disoriented by the time shifts — for instance, one minute Noah is 14, the next she is 22 and happily married. And some of the prose feels slightly clunky — normally when Mears’ is filling in backstory for her characters or explaining some of the finer points of showjumping history.

The prose, in general, appears to be written in a deliberately old-fashioned style that takes some getting used to — for instance, “the”, as a definite article, is largely absent so that characters go to “main house” instead of “the main house”. (According to Helen Elliot’s review in The Age, “Foal’s Bread is written in the vernacular of the times”.) But once you get into the flow of it, the language works its charm.

I especially loved the way the narrative is tied to the land, and there are reoccurring motifs — the floodwaters, an always-blooming Jacaranda tree, heart-shaped items found in nature — that make it a particularly visual read.

A powerful book

Foal’s Bread is a powerful book and rightly garnered much critical acclaim. You can listen to a fascinating interview with the author on ABC Radio National’s The Book Show.