One would think a story revolving around soil and agriculture and high ideas about better farming methods would be incredibly dull. One wonders also how this book could gather such widespread acclaim. I was more than pleasantly surprised, however, when I ventured into an Australia that I have never known amid wheat, phosphates, cattle and mice plagues and read about love, despair, friendship, and the inability of man to control the harsh landscape he loves.
Narrated by seamstress Jean, we meet the characters of ĎThe Better Farming Train.í The Government has put together a group of experts on everything from cattle to looking after babies in a propaganda exercise to encourage people in small towns to work harder to produce better crops, cattle and healthy members of the population. We may have grown as a nation on the sheepís back, but the train has experts on almost everything relevant to farm life, including a charming Japanese chicken sexer.
Jean soon leaves the train behind, though, after she falls for the quiet, unassuming and idealistic scientist, Robert, whose expertise lies in soil. His religion is science, and he honestly preaches the use of super phosphates to improve crop yield so significantly that not using it would be tantamount to sin. He buys a farm and uses his scientific rules to enhance his crops and convinces other farmers in the Mallee area to do the same.
With no farming experience, we see the scientist fight against the elements he has never dealt with or considered - a fight which he can only lose.
Jeanís commentary is heartbreaking as she talks about her dedication to her husband, a desperate effort to gain his love through pleasing him by helping with his experiments as well as patiently putting up with wheat husks covering the kitchen table.
The relationship is as important to the story as the fight between science and nature. As Robert desperately fights against drought and mice plagues, Jean fights against his and her emotional isolation from each other. They both watch in dismay and shame as year by year the wheat yield becomes less and less and so the relationship, based purely on a physical bond, deteriorates as well.
Tiffany brings alive the heat, dirt and isolation that is the Australian bush. It may be the 1930s, but the characters fight against what still faces our farmers: drought, plagues and isolation. Throw in the Depression and war, and it is hard to see how anyone survived in this unforgiving environment.
The reader does not have to appreciate science or be interested in agriculture to enjoy this book. Tiffany weaves a fabulous tale based on one personís desire to belong.
International readers should not be deterred. Comparisons to Steinbeck are not premature or at all inappropriate. The themes depicted in this rich novel are universal; the story could indeed be taking place anywhere farmers struggle on the land and couples struggle in love and life.
Tiffany deserves her many accolades for this, her debut novel. I am looking forward to more from this brilliant agricultural journalist turned novelist.