Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 2, 2020

Small Mercies, by Richard Anderson

A fine-grained study of a marriage and a land in crisis.  A wonderful book. – Jock Serong

I couldn’t agree more, Jock! Small Mercies is wholly engaging—a character-driven novel where the unforgiving Australian climate is an unpredictable character as well.

Richard Anderson is a second-generation farmer from northern NSW and this book is his third novel: he is the author of two rural-crime novels, Retribution (2018) and Boxed (2019).  But Small Mercies is a novel of contemporary life: set on a property in drought-ravaged New South Wales, it traces a brief but destructive period in a marriage under stress from a devastating medical diagnosis and the long-term uncertainty of small-scale farming in Australia.

Ruthie and Dimple have been married for a long time and they know each other well in the way of long-term marriages.  They’ve raised two sons, both of whom now have fulfilling lives in the city.  J is content where he is but Finnie might want to return to the land one day.  For now, life revolves around the daily grind of handfeeding the cattle, watching the weather forecast for long-overdue rain and the constant anxiety that maybe this ‘drought’ may never break.  It may be a harbinger of climate change that will ruin them.

Two catalysts provoke a crisis in an otherwise stable life and relationship.  Ruthie’s medical diagnosis makes her newly conscious of her own mortality and the need to make a difference.  She persuades Dimple to go with her to confront the exasperating loudmouth Wally Oliver, a wealthy landowner who spruiks on radio his claim that small farmers are doomed and the sooner they leave the land to large operators like him, the better. Though things are not easy, Ruthie and Dimple are not struggling as many of their counterparts are: they have managed their farm in full awareness that drought has always been part of the cycle of farming in Australia.  They manage their finances knowing that there will be lean years, and they manage the stock and the land to see the drought through.  But Ruthie is outraged on behalf of others less well-off than they are, and Dimple knows that many of his counterparts are struggling with mental health issues and that this kind of doom-laden talk could cause lasting harm.

So they set off on a road trip to have their say, but this temporary escape from their burdens breaks a communication drought in their relationship. Both of them are reticent; both of them have learned over many years to avoid confrontations; and both of them have kept quiet about minor indiscretions in the past. But now Ruthie is restless, and she wants to make the most of life, while Dimple’s contentment with the farm lifestyle is undermined by his uncertainty about the long-term future of the farm.

This portrait of a marriage coming unstuck as a result of external factors applies just as much to people in the city.  Last week the iconic Holden brand deserted Australia, and the impact goes beyond the people who have lost their jobs and businesses as a result.  The decline of manufacturing in advanced economies contributes to a pervasive sense of uncertainty about the future.  No one has secure jobs anymore, and that anxiety permeates the economy because people who can, are saving their money for the looming ‘rainy day’.

[It seems ironic to use that expression these days: a ‘rainy day’ in Australia would be a good day in many places.]

Small Mercies depicts the way a lifetime of hard work and loyalty can be challenged by the stress of factors beyond our control, and how the offer of what seems like a way out can be disastrous.  It’s impossible not to become invested in these characters: though their regrets, hopes and fears are revealed to the reader through the limited third-person narration, their responses to each other are sometimes made through guesswork informed by knowing each other so well, but also sometimes in ignorance of how their capacity to endure is changing.

Small Mercies isn’t just a window onto the crisis on the land.  It’s the love story of an older couple too, something we don’t often see in fiction.

Highly recommended.

Author: Richard Anderson
Title: Small Mercies
Cover design by Scribe, cover image by Chris Ison/Shutterstock
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2020
ISBN: 9781925849707, pbk., 204 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Available from Fishpond: Small Mercies and direct from Scribe

 


Responses

  1. And straight onto my library list! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t wait to see what you think of it!

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  2. This sounds very good. From the cover alone the book snob in me would probably not pick it up as it looks too much like commercial romantic fiction of which Australia seems to produce an extraordinary amount.

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  3. This sounds great Lisa – I’d love to try to find time to read it. I agree with kimbofo about the cover. It does look a bit like rural genre of some sort, though without the back of a woman, it doesn’t necessarily make me think rural romance!

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    • My initial reaction was to think of the drought and climate change…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not sure I don’t agree with Wally. Certainly all the recent sentimentality about farmers in the fires and the drought and the floods, gets up my nose, and why they should get government handouts ahead of anyone else has me beat. When you see what so many of them do with sandy soils, overcropping and overgrazing until all there is left is sand blowing in the wind, it might be far better for us all to pay them to leave the land and let great swathes of it return to scrub.

    Still, nice to have a farmer writing about farmers for a change instead all those inner city latte sippers who wouldn’t know a wether from a ewe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL Bill, it’s good to know that the author has got something right!

      Like

  5. […] just a short while since I read and reviewed Richard Anderson’s Small Mercies, and I was keen to find out more about this author who I’d just discovered.  So I was […]

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  6. […] Small Mercies, by Richard Anderson […]

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