In 2003, Carrie Tiffany won the Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript for this novel. Or an earlier incarnation of it, anyway. Since then, it has been shortlisted for a huge number of both national and international literary awards, including the Miles Franklin, and the Orange Prize. So, yes, quite a bit of hype surrounding this new Australian author. Which can only be a good thing. But is it worth it?
By 1934, the Government of Australia had created the ‘Better Farming Train’, which went around rural Victoria to small towns and settlements to teach people how to farm better. On this train, you could find people who would give ‘lecturettes’ about a whole load of stuff pertaining to agricultural life, such as soil development, wheat growing, chicken sexing, and ‘women’s business’. Life aboard this train is quite unique, placing people from many different backgrounds into a small confined area, and hoping for the best. It is here that Jean Finnigan and Robert Pettergree meet, fall in love, and get married. Deciding to attempt to farm the harsh land in which they find themselves, they learn more about themselves, as well as the landscape around them, than they ever wanted.
This slim volume (a phrase I have always wanted to use) did not, for me, live up to all the hype. Yes, it’s good, but it’s not that good. The premise itself is actually quite interesting – this train that travels around the land teaching people how to be better farmers – but it fizzles out quite quickly, with Tiffany instead preferring to explore the relationship between Robert and Jean.
Not to say that the relationship is not interesting. Far from it, in fact. Robert, in particular, is an excellently created character, whose love of science, and hope that it will save him from the drought, the Depression and the War, is fantastically juxtaposed against his quite physical relationship with Jean. It is actually Jean, from whose point of view the story is told, that lets down the novel, I feel. I’m not sure if it’s Tiffany’s style, or something else, but I don’t feel, after having read the novel, that I really know Jean at all. And it’s not as though she doesn’t have enough character-defining moments. Perhaps the language is too sparse – we don’t get a build up of who Jean really is. Instead, she just wanders through the novel.
I think that the novel would really have benefited from being longer. And yes, that’s probably the only time I will ever say that. But, I genuinely believe that fleshing out the train sequences, as well as the time between harvests in the later parts of the novel would really have allowed Tiffany to explore the themes she so desperately wants to look at properly – in particular, the effect that this ridiculously harsh landscape has on Robert, who places complete faith in science, as well as Jean, who places complete faith in the science that Robert teachers her.
Look, the novel is good. I certainly didn’t begrudge having read it. But, I really think that the hype was perhaps a bit much. Maybe I just don’t like Tiffany’s writing style, or maybe I felt a bit let down by its length. I will, however, be very interested to see what Tiffany does next.