The Year of the Farmer begins with an ominous scene of dogs running at night with “blood on their minds” towards sheep trapped in their paddocks, “innocent to the coming game”. Dogs aren’t the only predators in this darkly comic new novel by the author of The Dressmaker. As for prey, not all are sheep by any metaphorical stretch, but many are indeed trapped in their paddocks. Drought is upon the land. The farmers who haven’t already sold up can feel their creditors closing in, and the local water authority doesn’t appear to have their best interests at heart either. The river, with its uncertain flow, divides town and country in more ways than one.
Handsome, hardworking Mitch works the farm that’s been in his family for a hundred years. If life were just – or novelists less inclined to torment their nicest characters – Mitch would be presiding over bumper crops and flocks of fat sheep with his soulmate and true love, the lusty Neralie, by his side. But the novel opens with Neralie far away in Sydney chasing her dream of a bigger life and Mitch contemplating his ravaged fields, gaunt sheep and possible bankruptcy. He is also unhappily and somewhat accidentally married to the most detested woman in town, Mandy Roper, a woman his sister Isobel describes as “the arse through which the devil herself shits”. But Mitch remains stubbornly, adorably optimistic. “This is my year,” he informs his dog, Tinka, at the start of the novel, “our year. Rain will fall and life will change.”
Neralie’s old friends blame themselves for letting Mandy snare Mitch. But they blame Mandy more, and show it in a thousand ways. Resentful, petty and vindictive, Mandy makes it her mission to punish the town she feels is always punishing her. This is a community brimming with passive aggression, old grudges and fresh pique. Mandy, who runs the newsagency, purposefully keeps her elderly customers waiting for their papers by opening late every day. The cashier and manager of the local IGA drops tins of baked beans onto the bananas of customers who annoy her. The town’s only pub and hotel tells a disliked guest there’s no more hot breakfasts – he spoons up his damp cereal while watching eggs and bacon sizzling on the grill for other, more favoured customers. Even the old town nurse and midwife keeps a mental list of residents she wishes she’d stifled at birth. If there’s one common enemy, it’s the on-the-make head of the water authority, Glenys Dingle, and her dodgy minions who conspire to profit from the farmers’ misery. Beau, a late blow-in from Sydney who unwittingly declares his outsider status by locking his car when parking it on the main street, is riveted by the awfulness of it all. “You people are barbarians,” he says at one point, quite reasonably.
Author Rosalie Ham grew up in Jerilderie, New South Wales. Fans of The Dressmaker will recognise her talent for conjuring up the sounds, sights and smells of the Australian countryside, from the “paddocks, faintly ticking, crackling as they baked in the sun” to the way sheep move in on a line of feed “like a zipper closing”. She is also a delightfully close and merciless observer of human nature. Even the most minor characters in The Year of the Farmer sparkle. Take for example the elderly librarian, Mrs Goldsack, who sits under a portrait of the Queen with her matching mauve-tinted, tunnel-curled hair. When the young Lana proposes to hold classes in internet literacy at the library, the horrified Mrs Goldsack clutches her Silver Jubilee brooch and raises her chin: “I think,” she says, “you’ll find your students will be disappointed. Computers are not what they say they are.”
The Year of the Farmer brought to mind the early 20th-century English satirist E. F. Benson’s hilarious Mapp and Lucia series of novels about English village life, with their rich characterisations, teacup tempests and social comedy. But Ham’s rather more Gothic comedy of manners is set in the Australian now of climate change, droughts and the intractable politics of water. The entire town holds its breath when the weather report comes on, but even a deluge isn’t going to solve the long-term problems of water management and distribution. News reports of water entitlements, buybacks and valuations may make the heads of urban dwellers spin, but to farming communities such as depicted here, this is the stuff of life and death. When a character in the novel remarks, “Isn’t blood thicker than water?” another answers, “At this point, water is blood.”
Part of Ham’s genius is to put sensible, even righteous opinions into the mouths of characters who are themselves anything but. Glenys Dingle, for example, talks about environmental sustainability and mustering resources for the common good. Yet she is the type of Australian politician or bureaucrat who, tasked with dealing with rural communities, slaps on a spanking-new Akubra, talks down to the people and is then offended that they don’t just fall into line and do what’s right for everyone, especially her. The smelly, scruffy ferals who camp in the bush with their sheep-murdering dogs, meanwhile, observe that true environmental sustainability would require dismantling the whole corrupt capitalist system that enables the likes of Dingle in the first place. Then again, even they’re not above working it for cash from time to time.
Given the fact this is a novel about people struggling to live off the land, the absence of Indigenous characters began to feel to me like a spooky kind of presence. Do communities like this ultimately represent an updated version of the Burke and Wills story?
Regardless of what you read into it, The Year of the Farmer remains a tightly plotted, highly entertaining romp that poses some big questions. Life is complicated. But sometimes all you want to know is: will Mitch get his Neralie back? And what can be done about Mandy Roper? CG
Text, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 22, 2018 as "Rosalie Ham, The Year of the Farmer".
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