The author of The Dressmaker returns with The Year of the Farmer – a novel of romance and skullduggery in a small farming community.
Part mystery, part romance, part social comedy and part slapstick, The Year of the Farmer brings together an engaging cast of less-than-perfect characters in its small Australian town, and follows their rivalries, discontents and passions as they battle the carpetbaggers of the Water Authority.
Rosalie Ham’s fourth novel was published last year, before the scandal of the recent fish kills in the Murray-Darling basin and the release of the report of the South Australian government’s royal commission into the management of the river system and its findings of maladministration and malfeasance. For those of us living in the city, The Year of the Farmer has plenty to teach us about the water market and the ways of irrigation, introducing us to things such as Dethridge wheels, flume gates and above-ground lateral sprinklers. In its description of the challenges faced by small farmers dependent on irrigation water, and the sharp practices surrounding allocations, the novel could not be more timely.
At its heart is Mitchell Bishop, ‘a lean, broad-shouldered young man in his prime, expectation in his heart despite the drought and his just mildly successful marriage.’ When we first meet Mitch, he is handfeeding sheep on the farm his father has worked before him. As the ‘thread of skinny, unhandsome sheep were falling into line, like a zipper closing, either side of the thread of golden feed’, he tells his faithful dog Tinka, ‘This is my year, our year. Rain will fall and life will change.’
In the course of the novel Mitch’s life does change and rain does fall, but nothing is simple. If Mitch is the hardworking hero with a heart of gold, running his farm as best he can despite the drought and the bank, looking after his aged father, seeing through the wiles of the Water Authority, putting up with his marriage, yearning for rain and his childhood sweetheart Neralie, his wife Mandy is the most interesting.
Even though Mitch is ‘the most popular bloke in town’, the town has been unable to prevent the catastrophe of his marriage:
The whole town was at the pub the night Mandy Roper smiled at Mitch and told him she’d like to buy his dead mother’s little white wagon. ‘Can you come and take me for a ride in it?’
Lana said, ‘Do something,’ but Kevin said, ‘You can’t deny anyone a root,’ and Jasey said, ‘She’ll be hard to get rid of.’
Mandy is awful. Pitiable, too, but mostly awful. As Denise from the op shop says, ‘Mandy Roper’s been like a knife slicing through polystyrene since she was born.’
A study in frustration and vindictiveness, Mandy is desperate to belong but pathologically unable to act in her own best interests. At one point she sits down to a meal at the hotel, feels the eyes of everyone on her and cannot eat for thinking that her food has been poisoned. She knows that Mitch only married her because she said she was pregnant and Neralie was out of town. And now Neralie’s back.
Ham has assembled a large cast, and it can take time to get to keep everyone straight in the early stages. Aside from Mitch, Mandy and Neralie (who has returned to take over the town’s only pub), there’s Jasey who runs the IGA and her best friend Lana; Kellie the hairdresser with her fancy manicures; Kevin who runs the service station and is owed money by everyone because of the drought; the ferals camped by the river; Mitch’s sister Isobel Prestwich and her fine-fleeced merinos; Mitch’s arthritic father Cal; and 85-year-old Esther Shrugg, whose farm is a haven for vermin and weeds.
Then there is the uncompromising Glenys Dingle from the Water Authority, keen to keep her masters happy and to see that the lake beside her lakeside apartment actually contains water. As she explains to her henchman, local man Cyril Horrick:
… you will get your farmers to install new irrigation systems to save water then you will cut water allocations so that I can please the minister and the Federal Government and the green factions and every other club, organisation and committee that’s arguing over water.
Cyril undertakes this task with a garage full of brand-new water pumps and meters that he believes will provide a useful addition to his superannuation.
The novel opens with a pack of dogs:
… outrunning the westbound flow of the sluggish river to the sleeping sheep captured in their paddocks and yards, innocent to the coming game.
And it’s not a bad metaphor for the behaviour of the Water Authority towards the farmers trapped on their land by drought and debt.
Ham is clear-eyed but not unsympathetic to her characters, and has a fine sense of the absurd and a keen ear for dialogue. After the slightly chaotic start when we meet so many characters at once, it’s not long before you start to feel like a local, and the novel’s sly exuberance becomes irresistible.
Rosalie Ham The Year of the Farmer Pan Macmillan 2018 PB 336pp $32.99
This review originally appeared in the Newtown Review of Books on 19 February 2019.