The trope of the regional Australian town has been done to death. Rosalie Ham’s “The Year of Farmer” stands well above the malaise.
It’s all too common for Australian novels set in rural and regional centres to rely on “sunburnt country” tropes. What once could have been thought of as being poetic and evocative writing in capturing the unique outback landscape can very readily sway into the realm of cliché. Then, into the mix comes Rosalie Ham, whose new novel The Year of the Farmer takes its story of community intrigue, infighting and governmental malfeasance and imbues it into a pastoral landscape rich in poetic, literary observation.
There’s a degree of insight about these lives in the Riverina, an insight which can pin-point the variables within these country archetypes. Ham’s writing paints a detailed, evocative portrait of the landscape, while her characters and plotting show a keen eye for human drama. The fact that this is set in regional NSW is neither here nor there from certain angles, given that any number of these dynamics could be played out in any number of tomes delving into office politics.
The setting, and themes (drought, bureaucracy) seem to have more prevalence at this particular point in the nation’s history, but the way the plot thickens, the characters within it interact, and the wise structural choice to place the book’s narrator’s voice as being first person omniscient provides a level of character insight that’s too rare a commodity. Nothing is assumed, all of the characters are fully-realised. There’s an awful lot of meat on these bones.
The Year of the Farmer is a quiet and stunning achievement; an occasionally blackly comic look at a society pushed to the brink by climate, government and a system of rules they can only do so much to keep pace with, let alone capitalise on. The characters within it are, as noted, fully realised and show Ms Ham’s genuine understanding for the plights suffered by those backbone folks out there earning a living off a tough environment.