Tag Archives: farming

Independent People (1934) – Halldór LAXNESS

Sorry for the huge gap between reviews – I’ve just arrived back at uni, so there’s a whole load of stuff that’s being going on and which has impeded my ability to sit down quietly and read. However, I finally finished this book last night, after about three weeks (and after it sitting on my shelf since before Christmas).

Bjartur has just been freed from his time as a servant, and has been given some land so that he may farm sheep. This is no easy task, especially in the harsh Icelandic winters, and the lonely Icelandic summers. When his wife dies after giving birth to what he knows is not really his daughter, Asta Sollilja, he calls on the help of two women to help out around the house. Again and again, though, his ‘independence’ gets in the way of his relationships, and he will never truly be loved.

Most peopel tend to see epic novels as a bit of a chore to read – they have notoriously difficult language, there are hundreds of characters to keep track of, and nothing ever really happens. And while this book did take a while to get through, and it certainly does have an epic feel to it, there is no sense of difficulty in reading it. It is highly readable, and the plot is enough to keep you hanging on, wanting to know what happens next. Perhaps this is because while it is an epic, it is an epic on a very small scale – we are following the life of one Icelandic crofter, and his small family and farm in the middle of nowhere. Again and again, this concept of being alone and being isolated is beautifully described by Laxness – and this extends to emotional distance as well as geographical.

Bjartur is a particularly cold and unfeeling man, more concerned with his independence than anything else – for him, his sheep are more important than even his own family, and he admits as much throughout the book. Bjartur is certainly an independent man in the financial sense, but this ideology of doing everything for oneself impedes his ability to function as a human being. His children are isolated from the rest of the world, and are physically ill because of it, and his two wives die of loneliness. Even at the end of his life, he maybe begins to realise this, but still banishes his housekeeper. He simply cannot perform the basics tasks of humanity, and you really feel for his family. Even when people die, he cannot muster up any kind of emotion. As a main character, you feel absolutely nothing for him, which is actually an excellently cunning ploy by Laxness to allow us to focus our sympathies on his family – who really do suffer throught the entire novel. Life as a crofter is tough, and Laxness has a gift for showing us this human struggle for survival.

While the human condition is certainly the primary focus of this novel, Laxness also deals with many things that are uniquely Icelandic. Convenient, since I know nothing about the country. The novels spans the decades before the first World War, to just after it, and provides a pretty detailed (and interesting) history of Iceland and its political movements of the time. It’s interesting to see the struggle between communism and capitalism, and the eventual success of socialism (ironic, considering Bjartur’s dislike of pretty much everyone else), as well as the rise of one Prime Minister, who is disliked by Bjartur. Granted, he shouldn’t feel special, because Bjartur is pretty much the most misanthropic character I’ve ever read.

I wasn’t convinced that this book would change my life, as Annie Proulx so boldly claims on the cover. And while I still don’t think it changed my life, the book is pretty awesome. I love that Laxness gets into the working class mentality that any kind of help is onstantly bad, and must be repaid at all costs. Pride and independence are closely linked in this novel, and the human condition cannot survive if you are proud. Human relationships are a necessary and vital part of being human, and those that cannot have them will not fare well. Highly recommended if you have the time.

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The Pages (2008) – Murray BAIL

The combination of a birthday and a new book by an author who you love is always good. Especially since I didn’t know that Murray Bail had finally written another novel. My bad. So, does it live up to Murray Bail’s excellent? And more importantly, was it a good birthday present?

Erica Hazelhurst is a philosopher working at Sydney University, and has been asked to go out west to investigate the personal papers of Wesley Antill, whose will asked that they published as a philosophy, on the advice of his siblings. With her friend Sophie, a psychoanalyst, they travel to the farm on which he lived, where his two siblings – sister Lindsey, and brother Roger – are waiting to give Erica the lowdown on their recently deceased brother. As Erica starts to investigate the pages of Wesley’s philosophy, everything around her starts to change.

To be fair, not a lot happens in this book. At all. It starts off with some excellent promise, with Erica and Sophie introduced to us as they drive out west, in a typically excellent Bail way. Unfortunately, though, neither of them are very strong characters, instead (to use a painting metaphor) painted with kind of broad strokes that don’t really tell us that much about them. Erica doesn’t talk that much, and Sophie talks a little. Both prefer to listen to other people, and while Lindsey is a bit of a talker, Roger is the strong but silent type that just sits down and watches the landscape.

The more interesting parts of the novel are contained in Wesley’s flashbacks, in alternating chapters, to his time in Sydney and Europe, continuing Bail’s interest in Australians overseas, as in his first novel, Homesickness. His experiences with philosophy, and how it affects and changes him are interesting, with Bail preferring to ponder what philosophy does to someone, rather than what philosophy has to say about life itself. His time in Europe meanders around, until the very end (by which stage, I was wondering how on earth the book could possibly end, considering I had so few pages to do, and no sort of conclusion in sight), when the whole thing falls into place.

The best thing about this novel is, of course, its language. Once again, Bail shows himself to be a master of language and description, and he is in his element here when talking about the landscape out west of Sydney, and even some parts of Sydney itself are excellent. The Europe parts, not so much, except maybe some of the parts in London, a highly unphilosophical town.

To be honest, I was a little underwhelmed by The Pages. It is a short little thing that tries to talk about philosophy in an interesting and unusual way, but it is just too short and light to be very good at that. For me, a story like this needs to be either a short story, or a massive, sprawling novel. Instead, it kind of meanders around its characters, not really allowing them to be very much (the three women in particular), and kind of leaving you feeling a bit flat.

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The Ballad of Desmond Kale (2006) – Roger McDONALD

So, this book had been staring at me from my shelf for a long time. It won the Miles Franklin Award in 2006, which usually guarantees a good read (or it certainly has lately), but I was put off by a comment by someone calling it ‘the best book about shep farming you’ll ever read’, or something to that effect. In essence, I thought it another long winded, historical novel set in colonial Australia, and I left it. Then, I picked it up to take overseas, and I’m really glad I did.

The first thing to note is that The Ballad of Desmond Kale is not about Desmond Kale at all. Not really, anyway. Despite the opening scene, featuring Desmond Kale escaping from prison (and the occasional chapter going back there) Instead, Roger McDonald introduces us to a whole cast of characters who are each somehow involved with Desmond Kale. In particular, we meet Parson Matthew Stanton, one of the best characters to come out of any book I have recently read. This man is the most pious, annoying person, and has made it his mission to hunt down Kale, who is rumoured to have a flock of perfect sheep under his control, yet alwys on the move. Stanton believes his flock of sheep are the best in the colony, yet his history with Kale means that he will stop at nothing to ensure Kale is caught and flogged. Again.

This, however, is but a small part of this massive novel. We meet the rest of Stanton’s family, as well as Kale’s daughter and grandson, who eventually ends up working for Stanton, as an apprentice shepherd, along with a young Aboriginal boy, Titus, who was ‘saved’ by Stanton’s wife, Dolly. We also meet Ugly Tom Rankine, a bent officer who is friends with the governor of the colony, and who has feelings for Kale’s daughter, Meg Inchcape. All of these characters and connections are fully rounded and well explored – McDonald gives each of them enough page time for you to pay attention, and when each string of the story comes round again, you are anxious to find out what is coming.

All of these characters play out acroos a huge canvas, that spans several yers in the colony’s history, as well as trecking across the world to play out in London. We watch children grow up, new players come into the story, charcters lose themselves in foreign islands, and fortunes change at the click of the fingers. People are backstabbed, betrayed, lied to, cheated by friends, and all that good stuff one would expect to find in this kind of novel. Roger McDonald does not disappoint. His languge is top notch, and the way he unfolds this massive, and sometimes complex story, is well done.

The Ballad of Desmond Kale is a worthy recepient of the Miles Franklin Award. Within its covers, you will find something to keep everyone happy – intrigue, mystery, romance, and a cracking good story. Roger McDonald has created a fantastic protrait of the New South Wales colony in its youth, and you really feel a part of the action. Oh, and yes, it certainly is the best book about sheep farming I have ever read.

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