Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2018

The Year of the Farmer, by Rosalie Ham

Rosalie Ham’s fourth novel is very timely: The Year of the Farmer is set in a small rural town in the grip of drought.  Its people are even more tightly tangled in the stranglehold of water politics.

Droughts are perennial in Australia, and there is constant tension about how best to use a limited supply of water.  It’s not just farmers and environmentalists who bicker over who gets what, it’s also States upstream and downstream of rivers which straddle state boundaries.  Some years ago the Federal Government got involved and designed a scheme to resolve these issues, but it’s state governments that implement it and everybody seems disgruntled with the result.  The problem of water politics is only going to get worse as climate change wreaks havoc across our dry and dusty continent.

These big picture issues impact on the individual, of course, and Rosalie Ham’s hero Mitch is The Man on the Land.  He’s a lovely man.  Handsome, hard-working, kind and tender to old people and animals, he strides across his blighted landscape Doing His Best Against the Odds.

The Odds are stacked against him.  His farm is failing, his ancient dad is not much use around the farm any more, the water authority is demanding efficiency improvements he can’t afford to make, and (via an apocryphal pregnancy that ended in ‘miscarriage’) he has found himself married to Mandy, the town’s Most Horrible Person.  And when the story opens, his childhood sweetheart and the love of his life Neralie has come back from The Big Smoke to take over the local pub.

But Mitch is a resourceful and resilient optimist.

The dust staining the thin sheet of clouds peeping from the horizon told Mitch the sheep were coming.  He stopped the ute, tied the steering wheel to the rear-vision mirror to keep the vehicle on course, and wedged a square of timber against the accelerator.  He paused again to check the clouds sneaking up, then put the ute in hear and climbed onto the tray, the truck grinding along at a walkable nine k’s and the sun hot through his shirt.  The hungry, thirsty mob hurried towards him so he jumped onto the feeder trailed and pulled the outlet lever.  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 sipper closing, either side of the thread of golden feed.  He pointed.  ‘Those clouds will slide over here and water will fall from the sky.’

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.’ (p.3)

Alas for Mitch, he doesn’t know what the reader does.  A one-page but devastating prologue sounds the alert: the dogs from the hippie camp by the river have formed a marauding gang, a fluid line of hunt-coloured ghosts moving with purpose. 

These dogs are not the only predators.  Mandy is as unhappy as Mitch but has a finely tuned gift for malicious revenge, and since her attempt at social climbing has failed so miserably she is determined to ruin Mitch with the spoils of divorce.  The corrupt head of the water authority Glenys Gravedigger Dingle is out to profit from the argy-bargy over water allocations, and the residents of the new lakeside development want water for their empty lake.  The battle for business in a declining town is waged between shops duplicating their rival’s stock to poach customers, and the local lawyer that manages the bankruptcies is doing nicely enough.  Interlopers from the city have no idea what they have stumbled into, but they soon find out when a community meeting degenerates into a free-for-all of competing interests.

As Ham showed us in The Dressmaker, country towns are no idyll.   Her characters are deliberately exaggerated to reveal the rivalries, the snobbery, the jealousies and the naked spite – all of which are muted in big cities because we can get away from and ignore people we don’t like.  On the satirical canvas of The Year of the Farmer these human frailties are laid bare to devastating effect.

But love story and black comedy aside, The Year of the Farmer is also a vivid portrait of the struggle to live off an increasingly unruly land.  It’s salutary reading for city folk whose eyes might have glazed over newspaper reports about water allocations and subsidies for irrigation improvements…

Author: Rosalie Ham
Title: The Year of the Farmer
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2018, 323 pages
ISBN: 9781760558901
Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $32.99

Availability: Fishpond: The Year of the Farmer by Rosalie Ham and good bookshops everywhere


Responses

  1. I’d like to read this some time. I heard an interesting interview with her on Radio National last week in which she talked about how few books – even farming books – discuss irrigation. How fascinating I thought.

    And, what an interesting cover – I could spend a long time looking at that, wondering about what they were thinking in designing it.

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    • LOL I like the cover, but I have to drop a spoiler: there are no chickens in the story…
      I wonder if I can find that interview: irrigation doesn’t sound interesting, but if anyone can make it so, it’s Rosalie Ham!

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      • I wondered if the rooster/chooks were meant to suggest Weather Vanes? Or pecking order, given the rooster is at the top? Or both.

        I’m a bit frazzled at the moment and am about to go read a book, but it was probably the Book Show – whatever it’s called now … you know RN at 10am on the day they talk books.

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        • I can’t keep track of the book show any more. Sometimes I catch something bookish on the weekend, but I’m in the car when it happens so I have no idea what show it is.

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          • Download them as a podcast and listen at your leisure. The two I enjoy are The Bookshelf – Friday 12pm and repeated Sunday 3pm, Monday 11pm and The Hub on Books Tuesday 10am and repeated Wednesday 9pm, Saturday 2pm.

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            • I do sometimes, but mostly I can’t be bothered with the download process. I like listening in the car, or if I’m cooking in the kitchen, but the rest of the time I like thinking about things, not listening. And I never listen to stuff when I’m walking the dog: I like chatting to my neighbours and other dog walkers and that wouldn’t happen if I were plugged in to an iPod.

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              • Yes, I’m like you. There are so many things I’d like to listen on podcast, but I really only do listening things if I’m in the car alone, or doing chores around the house or garden. I refuse to go for walks with something plugged into my ear – not only do I want to hear what’s going on around me or be ready to engage with people I meet, but, like you, I also want to have some thinking space.

                When Mr Gums and I do road trips we used to listen to music or audio books but I’ve noticed in the last couple of years that we often drive in silence – well, we talk sometimes – but otherwise, we just enjoy the road, the scenery, our own thoughts. But, if I drive on my own I will usually have the radio on!

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                • It’s usually music in the car, for us:)

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                • Yes, mostly was for us – and could be again in the future – but I’m rather enjoying quietness at present for some reason.

                  Liked by 1 person

          • No, me neither. I know they do various Arts programs at 10am during the week (or which at least one is book oriented), and some dedicated Book one on the weekend, but it’s become a bit catch as catch can, as you say.

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            • I’ve just got in the habit of not listening to RN anymore because most of what’s on is rubbish. I suppose that’s what they want: then when the ratings are dead they can shut it down. Which is awful, but there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it.

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              • I wouldn’t call it all rubbish – but it depends what you are looking for I suppose. It helps me keep up with current research and thinking on a wide variety of topics, in a digestible way, when time is limited for in-depth reading. That said, I don’t listen as rigorously as I used to – a bit in the mornings if I’m pottering around, and when I’m driving on my own. I don’t feel as sad as I used to about missing programs.

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                • True, it’s not all rubbish (and I only said it ‘mostly’ was). But when you turn it on, and what’s on at that time is rubbish, well, it of course we turn it off, and it stays off more often than not.
                  The inane is even creeping into Classic FM. Today, a young female presenter was enthusing about a venue at which a concert was played, and she invited listeners to ring in and tell her if they’d been there. Who on earth cares if her listeners have been to this or that concert hall?? (Of course, if she knew anything about the music being played, she could have commented on that, but clearly, that was a gap in her broadcasting skills which doesn’t matter to management any more).

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                • Yes, you did! I was being provocative!!

                  As for that Classic FM story – hmmm. As you say, the music is the important thing, unless there’s something important to say about the venue like its acoustics are great to they’re not!

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                • It’s a good thing these presenters can’t hear what I’m saying about them…

                  Liked by 1 person

                • You never know they might be reading your blog!

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                • What I’m saying about them here in the privacy of my own home is much, much worse than anything I’ve ever written here on this blog!

                  Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

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  3. LOOKS GOOD LISA, CHINA

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  4. 10 AM on RN appears to be about everything except books – part of the News Ltd-instigated dumbing down of the ABC, I’m guessing. I have a Rosalie Ham in my ‘immediate’ TBR, the half dozen books I cart around with me for when I have a free hour, and I enjoyed The Dressmaker.

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    • Don’t get me started!
      (Do you know, last night I saw a tweet about that appalling alt-right motion sponsored by Pauline Hanson… so I looked at ABC online to confirm it, and not only was it not a lead headline, it wasn’t even there at all. (And their lead opinion a.k.a. clickbait story was about whether vegans should eat avocados). I had to go to the Guardian to find out about the motion to discover that the Libs had voted with her.)

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  5. I just read this over the weekend and will have my review up on Thursday. It was a very enjoyable read but I am partial to Rosalie Ham’s novels.

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    • I’m partial to them too, but I think this is an important book. Some *sigh* people at Goodreads have complained that they don’t find the characters ‘relateable’ – but isn’t that the point? For city folks to understand the realities of life in the bush while enjoying a bit of a black humour romp?

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  6. This sounds good to me. And it’s an interesting observation that city folks can get away from some of the uber-nastiness, but there is also a broader sense of kinda-nastiness that surfaces from the volume of interactions too. I recently finished a collection of classic CanLit stories by Sinclair Ross, set in the dustbowl of the Prairies in the 1930s, and it was beautiful and bleak and sounds like a terrific companion for this setting.

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    • Yes, that’s true, the fleeting nastiness is there. And sometimes the anonymity of city life makes people do things that they would never do in their own neighbourhood. Did you know, for example, that research shows that people slow down and stop speeding close to home?

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