Sunday, April 29, 2007

Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany

I've not read a novel quite like this one. That's a good thing - when an author comes up with something new. The author grew up in rural Western Australia, where her father was fruitlessly trying to farm. On a trip across Australia she applied, apparently on a whim, for a job as a park ranger in its Red Centre. Then she became an agricultural journalist. She writes of the land with grace, authority and respect.

As I was reading this, I was wondering how much of it was true. I mean, to use her own word, it is slightly surreal to think that the Australian Government responded to the impending depression by filling a train up with experts in agriculture and home economics and sending them out into country Victoria, calling it the Better Farming Train. Yet that is exactly what they did, and it is that story which provided the inspiration for the novel.

Jean Finnegan is the narrator (with an ability to narrate a couple of chapters where she was not present) and central character - she has been taken on to demonstrate the skills of being a seamstress to the rural women (roles are very traditional in this novel). Two men stand out - the gentle Mr Ohno, a Japanese expert in sexing chickens (he dresses very nicely, given his job: "immaculate in pinstrip trousers, a long swallowtail jacket, and a scarlet tie of the deepest scarlet"), and Robert Pettigrew, an English soil scientist. His party trick is identifying the source of soil by taste. Both eschew the company of the rest of the train, both are laconic in the extreme and both appeal to Jean. The first third or so of the novel is concerned with life on the train:
as it heads through the Mallee. There is, of course, a seduction scene, of sorts: Robert and Jean are working in the honey car, not really talking but before long there is an episode which concludes with "the sound of skin unsticking". They are never the most talkative of couples, but Jean seems to just fall in with his ways.

But the big story is about science versus nature. Robert has 8 rules for scientific living, which he wants to put into practice in the Mallee, growing wheat. These rules have a focus on fact and an avoidance of "mawkish consideration of history and religion". And so he and Jean start a farm, to be worked on scientific principles. Every year, a scientific record is made of the wheat yield, its quality and that of the bread made from it by Jean. Every year, the record tells a worse story. Relations between Jean and Robert break down (which is just as well, as the sex scenes are a little odd - as she's having sex, she's thinking about rules of good housekeeping; as she's housekeeping, she's thinking about sex) as his despair grows. Sure, science plays a part in farming but, at least in terms of the story told here, nature is a stronger force. (An alternative take would be that Robert was applying science with inadequate knowledge of the facts.) And so, while science would suggest increased productivity, this is thwarted by a variety of forces - mice which eat the crop, rain which fails to fall, a wind which blows the soil all the way to Melbourne, a schemer who rips off most of the farmers.

World War II is the final straw: it provides an opportunity for the few men who have yet to be sold up to sign on. Poor old Mr Ohno is still in the country but, being Japanese, is interred along with the musical director of the Viennese Boys' Choir, which just happened to be in the area when war broke out.

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