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BOOK REVIEW: The Year of the Farmer by Rosalie Ham

| 9 February 2019 | 1 Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The Year of the Farmer by Rosalie Ham

Pan Macmillan Australia
September 2018
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Fiction / Modern & contemporary fiction

50% Rocking

Rosalie Ham is a country girl through and through. The author of the hit novel, The Dressmaker has written her fourth book, which is set in a small, country town. The Year of the Farmer is a timely story because it centres on a township struggling through the drought.

Tinka, Mitch’s mostly black dog, understood many words but there were none she recognised in the sounds he was making, so she turned her ear back to the gathering mob of dull sheep.
‘I see you don’t believe me, Tinka, but I’m reliably informed that weather works in seven-year cycles and I choose to believe it’. He climbed across and stood on the roof of his ute. ‘This is my year, our year. Rain will fall and life will change.’

The story examines the linkages between the farmers, irrigators, town ferals, townies, and regulators. Things can get quite technical in places, at least with some of the descriptions. City readers may be left scratching their heads at some of the jargon detailing the specifics behind town irrigation.

The truth of the matter was that the pages on the table condemned his life blood. The twelve kilometres of channel that fed water to his farm were to be decommissioned, ploughed in, graded flat. Mitch was the only farmer on Bishops Road who used water from the channel, the only farmer, apart from Esther (who only watered weeds), who waited each season for the lifeblood to come babbling down the channel to feed his crops. And he was the only farmer left who maintained and used Dethridge wheels. The shiny black waterwheels once ubiquitous channels through rural Australia were now obsolete; the lovely dark blades that steadily pushed clay-coloured water out to the thirsty bays were being replaced.

Ham has attempted to make water and irrigation sexy. To do this, she adds extra sub-plots, including farmer Mitch’s unhappy marriage to a scheming woman named Mandy. Most people had assumed that Mitch would marry his childhood sweetheart, Neralie. But the latter has been away from town for a few years. That is until Neralie returns and buys the local pub. This creates a tense love triangle after Mitch rekindles their relationship.

Mitch checked the mail, again, in case there was a bill from the telco. The invoice was due; he needed to get to it before Mandy did, and it was sad that he did. Then he found that Mandy had wiped his careful history of irrigation systems, government subsidies, efficiency savings and commodities markets. He started his online research again but was soon distracted, wondering where it had all gone wrong. What had happened?

This book often feels like a cast of thousands and it can be tricky keeping up with who’s who. While Ham occasionally comes out with some zingers in her prose, this isn’t enough to distinguish the different players. This is a shame because Ham knits together a dark comedy where she challenges our stereotypes of the Australian outback. While she captures the insulated and claustrophobic community, some of the character’s speech can sound clichéd at times.

Mandy shook her head. ‘Not a fan of seafood or chicken.’
Neralie plonked a bowl of yabbies in front of her. ‘You and your fitness friend, Stacey the water taker, have been swimming with them,’ and Opal, who’d had two glasses of sparkling wine, said she hoped Mandy hadn’t weed in there then fell about in her chair laughing.

Human nature can be intriguing. At times it feels like Ham is trying to dissect the human psyche in a similar way to Lionel Shriver. In Ham’s case, there is self-interest and selfishness but some of this gets lost during this slow-burning drama, particularly in the moments that aren’t high stakes. Water may be life on this part of the Riverina, but it doesn’t always feel that important to the reader.

‘Isn’t blood thicker than water?’
‘At this point, water is blood.’

The Year of the Farmer is an ambitious undertaking. Ham tackles a multitude of characters and plots, and chooses unique subject matter as inspiration. You may appreciate what she’s trying to do but ultimately this is no Dressmaker. The Year of the Farmer is a detailed and drown-out tale that sometimes feels like it spans several decades, and that’s a long time between drinks.

Natalie Salvo

Category: Book Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at: http://nataliesalvo.wordpress.com

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