Far too many writers with hopes of being labelled “literary” believe achieving that status requires them to pile in the adjectives and adverbs, to describe their hero’s every twitch and turn, the leaf of every tree she sits under, the state of every cloud above. Such writers should be sentenced to read Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, the Orange Prize-shortlisted first novel of the Australian Carrie Tiffany.
“Spare”, “sparse”, “laconic” are the adjectives that might be applied to this account of one woman’s life in the Victoria Mallee, a wheat-growing region that suffered the same fate as the American dustbowl states. As a veteran of the Australian bush, I can confirm that no form of expression could be more apt; words are mere occasional punctuation of a real bushies’ silence. Yet sparse doesn’t mean thin; all of Australia’s 20th-century history is here – the struggle to find a workable relationship with an ancient continent, to come to terms with its place in Asia, two world wars, the Depression, stories that are indeed not just Australian, but universal.
Jean Finnegan arrives in the Mallee in 1934, as part of the forces of progress, on a government train bringing “science” to the farmers, with the confident expectation of prosperity and progress to follow. Yet the shadows of the past hang heavy. Jean is an orphan, her father having abandoned his motherless child for the War to End All Wars. The man she will marry, Robert Pettergree, has a different sort of horror of the past, from the Old Country, as Australians then referred to Britain. His mother was a prostitute, his siblings all born with deadly spina bifida.
Yet that unfortunate upbringing gave him a curious skill, the ability to identify soil by taste — its eating a habit learnt from his half-starved mother — and its tragedies produced a keen desire to systematise, control, plan the world. It is his schemised plan for living that gives the book its title.
What he wants to do, however, is not write these rules, but live them, so it is that the newly married couple start out on a wheat farm abandoned by its previous owners for the greener vision of New Zealand. Robert’s role will be to grow the grain, Jean’s to each year carefully, scientifically, bake and test the loaves – recording their superphosphate-aided progress towards gluten perfection. As anyone who’s read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath knows, however, many such hopes were swallowed up by the realities of the farming life – nature proving to have so much more power than the puny human science of this era of unrealistic hope.
Everyman’s Rules is lightly but effectively illustrated with period photos – a prize merino ram, an old “dogleg” fence, a favourite dog – giving touch of a feel of a family saga, a few sad lost relics of a broken family, just like the first family in the book whose property falls before the drought into the hands of the auctioneer. Subtle themes and symbols keep reappearing – the oranges that both Jean’s father and husband insists she eats – one of the few places in the book where science and nature are able to work in harmony,
An incident from the time that hope remains, but the rot is clearly evident, illustrated the sophistication of Tiffany’s approach:
Robert has never been into horses but the sand drift is making tractor work impossible. He asks the Chinese hawker Wing Fook to look out for a steady mare and a week later Fook appears at the door…
They walk out to Fook’s cart. A swaybacked mare is tied to the rail. Robert looks her over – a thin washed-out chestnut with a bitten-off tail.
‘Is she sound?’
Fook shrugs. ‘I think. But she not look so good.’
They bargain. Robert can’t afford the horse but he doesn’t want the Chinaman to see what he’s come to. Things are dire but he has his pride.
The mare is placid. She follows Folly around. She walks with her head down, sometimes bumping her nose on the ground. Until one day when she is left on her own. Then she walks blindly through a barbed wire fence. She cuts her chest and neck to shreds and bleeds to death.
It dawns on Robert bitterly. ‘She not look so good’ meant she could not see.
As happens again and again, there is much the white man, the interloper, the scientist, doesn’t understand about the world around him, much that doesn’t fit into his neat schemes of progress.
There are suggestions here of Patrick White’s classic The Tree of Man, yet this is a book of the 21st-century – more cynical, less mystical, and, of course, female-centred. Its philosophical complexity hiding behind a deceptively simple storyline reminds me of Simon Leys’s The Death of Napoleon. What is clear is that a distinctive, original novelist has emerged on the world stage.