Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 11, 2013

Harland’s Half Acre (1984), by David Malouf

Harland's Half AcreIt’s been too long since David Malouf’s last novel Ransom (see my review) and readers who love his work will be delighted by the reissue of Harland’s Half Acre by Vintage Books Australia.

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 …

©Lisa Hill

Author: David Malouf
Title: Harland’s Half Acre
Publisher: Vintage Classics, 2013, first published 1984
ISBN: 9781742758312
Source: Review copy courtesy of Vintage Australia


Fishpond: Harland’s Half Acre


  1. I must read this, thanks Lisa.

    Stories set in that time, early twentieth century, appeal to me. Told by two people, Frank and Phil, sounds like a similar structure as Faulkner’s As I lay Dying.

    The story resonates in several ways with me. My mother grew up on a dairy farm and moved to the city. The depression era deeply effected my father growing up, and I pursued a life in art, also worked in advertising as an illustrator.


    • Hello Greg, good to hear from you:)
      Faulkner … it’s ages since I read him and I didn’t make the connection. There’s a synergy between the two characters: Frank the dreamer and Phil the realist which lies at the heart of the book.
      The NYT review mentions DH Lawrence but I don’t know, I can’t think of Lawrence without thinking of his preoccupation with the sensual, and Malouf makes almost mention of any of that, it’s very chaste in tone.


      • Am now about half way. Malouf can say so much in a sentence, like ‘His aunt made a line with her mouth.’
        His description of an artist is spot on, I had some trepidation as I’ve read some novel about artists that just clunk. Trying to inject ‘suffering for your art’ or a bit mad and all that stuff. This book is a joy to read.


        • It’s beautiful, I agree, and it’s good to see that it has an artist’s seal of approval!


          • I finished reading it and read it again. The book isn’t like Faulkner as I initially thought from the book cover description. The story is told by Phil who doesn’t appear until the second chapter which introduces Phil’s family, so the first chapter appears to be written in the third person. The book has some beautiful passages, like the great description of what Frank is trying to capture in the portrait of Edna.
            It’s not surprising David Malouf got the artist so real. He consulted Jeffrey Smart about the informal training and working methods of an artist.
            All the character are flawed in some way. The story has good strong characters, both men and women.


            • Yes, I forgot to mention Jeffrey Smart in my review. I love his work!)


  2. This sounds wonderful. I hope to read Ransom sometime this year but I will look for this one to add to my shelf too!


    • I love Ransom, I think it’s the best thing Malouf has ever written.


  3. Thank you for the review, which rekindled memories of reading the book when it was first published. The portrait of an artist, and the way Malouf teases out the strands of artistic creation, had a big impact on me. I liked the idea of the creator not brooding over their latest work, but letting go, moving on, being responsible for what they make but not for what others make of it. It is a book I will reread.


    • Hello, thanks for visiting:)
      I love books about artists and how their minds work. My favourite was always The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Carey … but now I think it might be this one!


  4. I’m loving this book – almost resent having to put it down. First introduction to this writer,


    • He’s one of my favourite writers, and there are plenty more for you to enjoy when you’ve finished Harland:)


  5. […] For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s (much more perceptive) review at ANZ LitLovers. […]


  6. […] The only novel by Malouf I have yet to read is Harland’s Half Acre (1984).  I have ordered a copy through Biblioz. (Update 1/6/16 See my review). […]


  7. Top review. Greg recommended this to me on GR. I join the praise. Spellbinding prose that just sucked me in. Will read more Malouf.


    • Thank you:) Malouf is a wonderful writer… we haven’t seen a new novel from him for a while but I live in hope!


  8. […] The only novel by Malouf I have yet to read is Harland’s Half Acre (1984).  I have ordered a copy through Biblioz. (Update 1/6/16 See my review). […]


  9. […] Half Acre (1984), update:  see my review and a Sensational Snippet […]


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