Saturday, July 23, 2016
"Everyman's rules for scientific living" by Carrie Tiffany
The cover artwork of this book caught my attention at Adelaide's PopUp Bookshop at the Central Markets. I'm always keeping my eye open for interesting new books to read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2016, and it's always a struggle to go into a secondhand bookshop and not come out with at least one new treasure. I haven't read any books by this author before, but it was the winner of the Western Australian Premier's Award for Fiction in 2005, and also was short-listed for a number of other prizes e.g. Miles Franklin Literary Award so I didn't need any more convincing to buy it.
The book falls into the 'Literary fiction' genre but it also has some aspects of a historical novel too (one of my favourite categories of books). The story is set in the 1930s-40s in rural Australia. The first part of the book takes place on board the government "Better Farming Train" which seems to be a traveling small version of the Sydney Royal Easter Show - basically a train traveling through the countryside, stopping at townships where the various agricultural and domestic 'experts' give mini lectures to the locals on best farming practices and display prize examples of different breeds of livestock, along with cooking and sewing demonstrations etc. The main character, Jean, is a seamstress on the train, who falls in love with the soil scientist on board, Robert Pettergree, and in a matter of a few days they disembark the train, marry and set up life together on a wheat farm in Wycheproof, Victoria. It is an unlikely romance/relationship, Jean seems to be a lovely, curious young girl who forms friendships with all the characters on the train, and seems to approach life in a positive open way, while Robert is a bit of a mysterious strange character, yet very rigid in many ways. He treats life as a series of formal experiments, and when it comes to wheat farming seems convinced his scientific approach will result in abundant crops compared to all the locals who have been farming the land for generations without generating the yields Robert predicts are possible if farmed correctly. I never warmed to Robert, and as the book progressed I found him less and less likeable. The story unfolds as a tale of tragedy for the whole region, when the external factors such as the Depression, Drought and War combine with Robert's ill-advised recommendations to spend all their money on crop additives and modern farming approaches that they can't afford and which don't have the promised effects.
I enjoyed the writing style, and the little glimpses into life in rural Victoria in the 30s and 40s, as well as the way the rural countryside was brought to life. The book even has little black and white photos throughout which appear to be genuine photos from the era, and I really loved that. The way that attitudes of the time to women, 'foreigners' and the war were captured in the story was fascinating to compare and contrast to attitudes today in Australia. I did feel a bit flat after finishing the book though, it felt a bit like Jean had put her trust into her husband and then wasted a large chunk of her life in a slow spiral of unnecessary sadness and that she could have had a much better life if she had not left the Better Farming Train with Robert.
Started reading: 24th July 2016
Finished: 28th July 2016
My score: for the writing and insight into the time period: 8/10 for how much I enjoyed the story: 6.5/10
Genre: Literary fiction