I savoured what I’m sure will be a once-in-a-lifetime thing – a fabulous, darkly humorous novel about water entitlements.
The Year of the Farmer by Rosalie Ham centres on farmer Mitch Bishop. Mitch comes from a long line of sheep and wheat farmers, however, Mitch fears the family’s farm, Bishop’s Corner, will end with him – a drought; the departure of his childhood sweetheart and his subsequent marriage to the scheming Mandy; his ageing father; and the ever-increasing demands of the State Water Authority, are all taking their toll. But water politics, new owners at the local pub, and Mitch’s closest friends have a way of changing things.
There is so much to love in this story – villains (and you can’t wait for them to get their comeuppance); the slow-build to a dramatic climax; Ham’s very fine writing that captures the bitter rivalries and fierce loyalties particular to small towns; and superb descriptions of farming –
The middle of the seed in the bin fell away, and wheat trailed on the dry dirt. Soon the thread of skinny, unhandsome sheep were falling into line, like a zipper closing, either side of the thread of golden feed.
There are lots of characters in this book, and Ham hasn’t shied away from playing on stereotypes, but it’s the humour that elevates them. I particularly loved Mitch’s father, who would turn his hearing aid on and off when it suited him, and Mitch’s sister, Isobel, who also keeps sheep (referred to as her ‘girls’, Isobel’s sheep are Merinos, producing high quality wool. She describes them as ‘pretty’, with ‘neat, clean arses’). Exchanges between this large cast of characters happen at the post office, at the pub, or in the back paddock, and all receive Ham’s darkly satirical touch –
…her sullen customers only spoke of the clouds on the horizon, the possibility of rain, and the floods in Queensland. Lately, no one seemed to know the heart of matters, the interesting bits, like the details of the last will and testament or the bank statement that triggered the farmer’s suicide in the first place, or the exact reason why so-and-so had left her husband – was it because of the drought or was one of them having an affair, and if so, why? No one, it seemed, was interested in details anymore.
Granted, there is a lot of detail about irrigation, water trading and water rights (which I enjoyed but might bamboozle some readers) but you don’t need to follow the minutiae, just understand that it’s a ‘goodies’ versus ‘baddies’ battle –
And he was the only farmer left who maintained and used Dethridge wheels. The shiny black waterwheels once ubiquitous on channels through rural Australia were now obsolete; the lovely dark blades that steadily pushed clay-coloured water out to thirsty bays were being replaced.
This story is calling out to be made into a film – I can envisage it now – a Hemsworth for Mitch and, because Ham has created a character in Mandy to rival Tania from Muriel’s Wedding, the actress must draw on her cattiness, sense of entitlement and bitterness.
4/5 Australian gothic at its best.
Kevin put the bucket of fish on his sister’s whiter-than-white carpet next to Bennett’s white ankle socks. “Since you’re on our side, you can fix a few things for us. We don’t call you Two-shits Mockett for nothing.” Bennett stood there in his you’ve-only-done-one-shit-but-I’ve-done-two house with his gourmet snack and bigger-than-most front door, shaking his head. “That name’s not fair; I don’t play one-upmanship.”
And that ‘gourmet snack’ was a ‘yabby stick’. I love yabbies and although you can’t beat them boiled with melted butter for dipping, I do like the look of this dish – yabbies with apple, radicchio and lemongrass butter.