First published in 1984 when Malouf (b.1934) was fifty, Harland’s Half Acre brings us a world long gone even when he wrote it. A world where motherless children were split up and farmed out to relations bereaved in The Great War, while the remaining children lived in grubby chaos in a single-roomed shack. A world where bread pudding was a celebratory luxury and finishing school was an ambition reserved only for the brightest one, and then only if someone in the family did well enough to fund it. A world where one wife dies from an infected wound caused by a rose thorn and her successor Sally - having produced three more little children in quick succession – dies from the Spanish Flu. Malouf introduces his story with the childhood and adolescence of Frank Harland growing up on the remnants of his family’s former prosperity, where he is sustained by the garrulous fantasies of his feckless father, a man himself chained to the drudgery of an unprofitable dairy farm and five motherless boys.
No doubt childhoods like these have been the subject matter of many sorrowful or bitter memoirs, but Frank Harland’s life has its compensations and this first chapter is a testament to the human spirit. In the subdued house of his Aunt Else and Uncle Fred where the shirts of their only son Ned still hang in the cupboard, Frank learns to draw and so discovers the art that sustains him throughout his long life. And when reunited with his family after Sally’s death, he visits the ruins of the family’s fortunes lost to drink, gambling and mismanagement, and invests his father’s nostalgic stories with an imaginative reconstruction of their lives, creating a ‘memory’ of grand people in a grand house not much like what it really was. These ideas of former glory couple with a profound sense of responsibility to his family and form his ambition to somehow restore their fortunes. For all their faults he loves them dearly, and this love of his family is the making of the man.
Still very young, Frank takes advantage of a trip to Brisbane to show a bull at the agricultural show: he visits an art gallery with some of his pictures, and stumbles into the kindness of a dealer who sends him to a good teacher of art. Mr Hopkins finds him a job as an advertising copy artist so that he can pay for lessons, though Frank is somewhat guiltily aware that this means stranding Tam at home to care for his father and the farm. It is in this period that the habits of solitary life learned at Aunt Else’s are consolidated: Frank lives in cheap boarding houses so that he can send money home for his youngest brother Pearsall’s education – that is, until he loses his job in the Depression and goes on the road. Frank’s ambitions and hopes for his family seem hopeless then, especially when Clyde ‘goes bad’ and earns a remonstrance from his brother for wanting things ‘too easy’. This lonely, gentle, dignified man in sockless shoes and a jacket pulled tight across his chest to conceal that he has no shirt, writes home in letters too full of restraint to really express his love for his family. It is quite heartbreaking to read.
By the time he meets 12-year-old Phil Vernon with whom his life is always to intersect, Frank is living in the shabby remnants of a picture theatre in Brisbane. Phil is an only child; his large middle-class family consists of aunts and uncles and grandparents with whom his parents are living because his grandfather is dying. It is a tense household, dominated by his aloof, uncompromising grandmother whose ambitions included running the family fruit and vegetable business and sabotaging her daughters’ chances at any romance. Uncle Gil struggles with shell-shock while Phil’s father is a small-town dandy who fancies himself as a patron, handing out shillings to hard-luck stories and keen to buy the work of a struggling artist even though he himself has no taste in art at all.
While Frank’s story is always told in third person omniscient narration, Phil relates his story as a reflection, investing the past with the immediacy of childhood memories moderated by the observations of a mature man. Phil accepts his grandfather’s decline matter-of-factly and relates the idiosyncracies of his relations with a child’s detached pragmatism. Chapters alternate between Frank’s story and Phil’s so that the readers learn the origins of a painting that shocks 12-year-old Phil and is the catalyst for Frank’s career as an artist of note. In the quiet stillness of this poignant novel and the simple naïveté of Brisbane in the days when it was still more of a country town than a capital city, the sudden eruption of violence emanating from the wider world impacts on Phil in ways he did not expect:
None of this could I have put into words that day. I put it into silence. It was a silence, along with other things, that I felt I shared now with Frank Harland. (p. 72)
Exploring possession and dispossession, loneliness and solitude, the loss of a city’s innocence and the end of an era, Malouf shows us family life and how fragile it is. He shows us how being a ‘gentleman’ has nothing to do with money, but that the cost of dignity is an inability to express emotion. Frank’s final days of willing dispossession bring him risks as well as a kind of peace – and those who love him have to let him go.
It’s a beautiful book, a treasure of Australian literature.
See the NY Times review as well.
BTW, just in case you are mystified by an allusion on p. 133 to an 1873 seismic event in Iceland, Google leads me to the conclusion that perhaps Malouf confused the Laki eruption in 1873 (here’s a BBC article about it) and the notorious volcano called Hekla which was actually dormant in 1873, (see Wikipedia). (Malouf of course did not have the wonders of Wikipedia to check his facts, and his editor probably had no expertise in Icelandic volcanoes to correct it). Does the confusion matter? No, not really. Malouf’s character Knack is explaining to Harland that the catastrophic consequences of the eruption – poverty and famine all over Europe and Great Britain – led to the French Revolution and a ’new air’ of ideas. The actual name of the volcano is irrelevant to the point that a natural event over which man has no control could lead to astonishing social changes …
Author: David Malouf
Title: Harland’s Half Acre
Publisher: Vintage Classics, 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Vintage Australia