Friday, 27 January 2012

Blinded by Science

With my focus on female writers this month, and the plethora of Australian challenges I'm taking part in (see the icons on the right of my blog for details), when I heard of Carrie Tiffany's latest book, I thought it sounded like one for me.  I was cheeky enough to ask for a review copy of Mateship with Birds and her previous novel, Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living, and the lovely people at PanMcMillan (Picador) Australia were kind enough to send me a copy of both.  Sometimes life's like that :)

Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living is set in the Mallee region in country Victoria, a part of the Australian wheat belt, in the 1930s, where our main character, Jean Finnegan, is travelling around on the Better Farming Train, a government-funded initiative to bring progress and development to the people outside the major capitals.  Jean, a superb seamstress (two in one month!) falls in love with Robert Pettergree, an expert on soils, and the two of them very quickly decide to get married and establish their own farm in the Mallee, one based on scientific principles.

With Robert's farming expertise and Jean's wealth of household knowledge, the couple are sure they can make a go of things out in the country.  Sadly though, events conspire against them: the harsh Australian climate takes its toll on all the farmers eking out a living, and the Great Depression rolls in from the city to the country.  Sometimes scientific living just isn't enough...

There's a lot to like about this book.  It stands out from the usual urban tales of Australiana, ignoring the state capital of Melbourne and instead concentrating on life out in the country, where when people talk about the city, they mean the small regional centre of Swan Hill, not the bustling metropolis which the best tennis players in the world are currently visiting ;)  It's also a reminder that the Great Depression was a worldwide affair, not a Steinbeckian phenomenon limited to the heartlands of America, and we can see the effects of the drought and economic disaster right here on our doorstep.

One by one, farmers fall victim to the drought, unable to cope in times of reduced rainfall and economic hardship.  As Robert, on the orders of the state government, tries to move the farmers on to a more scientific method of growing wheat, the signs of the Depression are already in the air.  The very train bringing the super phosphate, the chemical which is to increase the wheat yield, also harbours economic refugees from the city - the first signs of what is to come.

It's also an interesting book in a feminist light as we get to see Jean's motives for marrying and the world she has born into, not one which encourages young women to hang around waiting for a man or to try to make a go of it on their own.  In an early flash back, we see Jean at school, in a scene where we are told in no uncertain terms what her role in society is to be:
"I didn't like it when the teacher split us into boys and girls and we had special talks.  Our talks were about being modest and having babies.  The teacher showed us a map of Australia and drew a big rectangle inside the middle of it with a ruler.
'See this - all empty.  And whose job is it to fill up the empty continent with lovely healthy babies?  It's your job, girls.  What an honour.  What a privilege...'" p.16 (Picador, 2005)
When we move forward twenty years, we see that little has changed.  On moving to her new home of Wycheproof, Jean visits the small library at the local Mechanics' Institute.  Unfortunately though, she is unable to get her library card on that day - the application form has to be filled out in the name of her husband...

It is against this background that Jean's decision to get married, even if it is to someone she loves (and sexually desires) is made.  With no real family life to return to, she finds it easy to throw in her lot with the taciturn Robert, deciding to stick it out in the country, whatever may happen.  However, for Robert, life is not so simple.  His belief in the progressive nature of science and the inevitability of correct preparation bringing superior results, means that he is unable to cope with the cruel surprises nature - and economics - spring on him.  Perversely, the more Jean rises to the challenge, the more he loses his faith in what he is doing, and his nature prevents him from truly confiding in the woman he has chosen to share this life of hardship.

It's not a perfect book by any means.  It's a little short, and the part about the train, a mobile practical classroom roaming around country Victoria, is over in a flash, half making you wonder whether it was worth including it at all.  There are several sex scenes which, while probably serving some purpose, seemed a little exaggerated and superfluous at times, and one supporting character, the Japanese scientist Mr. Ohno, bordered on a caricature, one which I really didn't think worked very well at all.  The writing is also fairly sparing and simple - while effective, there are no elegant, lexical pyrotechnics to be found here (although many readers may consider this a good thing!).

Overall though, these are minor, personal quibbles, and the positives of Tiffany's novel far outweigh the negatives.  It's an easy read, but a compelling one, and anyone interested in Australian history will particularly enjoy Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living.  Having enjoyed the first novel then, I'll be very happy to check out Mateship with Birds, again set in country Victoria, but this time in the 1950s.  I see my Women Writers Month might last a little longer than I'd originally planned for...