‘A Far County’ by Daniel Mason is a novel of seeking and finding. Isabel, the main character, is a young girl living in poverty in a small, Catholic village in an unnamed South America. Her family battles drought and illness as they scratch out a living from subsistence farming – supplementing their diet with rodents and cactus.
Isabel is seeking her brother, Isasis. Isasis, like many other young men and women of Isabel’s village, St Michael of the Cain, has fled to the Big City to find a better existence – one where he can be a musician and not a cane farmer, one where he can protect his hands and soul, not have them be crushed under the weight of intensive labour or permanent hunger.
And yet, in the months following Isasis departure, Isabel begins to worry about his welfare and whereabouts. Initially, he communicates regularly with this family in the village, and even sends money. He is doing well, according to his correspondence: he is a well regarded musician playing with a band, working, making some kind of a living.
When communications stop, along with Isabel’s brewing sense of unease, she convinces her family that she too, will take the trek to Big City – to stay with a cousin and help her with childcare, while also trying to find work. As Isabel is not only a devoted younger sister, she is also blesses with a gift of insight, a sixth sense to understand the world in a different way.
When Isabel arrives after a crowded and dangerous journey along the roads to the city, she discovers that Big City is vast and complex with different divisions and area, with complicated bus routes and streets to navigate. It is a place where working people make long bus journeys to work as waitresses, maids and cook. Where they seek out an existence cramped together in temporary dwellings pitched on hillsides.
And when her brother does not arrive at their agreed meeting place, she begins her search anew, tying to solve the mystery of his disappearance.
‘A Far County’ is in many ways a beautiful book – it is original and compelling with engaging and unique characters. Mason also uses beautifully phrased descriptive language coupled with a matter-of-fact tone that really gives a depth and feeling to Isabel’s world.
He also knows when to pull back, to not overstate, to let his reader come to their own conclusions.
A nice example of his writing is as follows:
They began to scratch for tubers and cactus fruit in the hills. They sharpened their knives on stones, held one end of the cactus with their teeth and the other with their fingers. They slit them open as though they were animals’ bellies and ate the white meat inside.
Manson also considers a number of confronting themes in this book: poverty, identify and place (and of course class), but he does not preach to his reader and attempt overt morality. Instead he describes the places, the people, and gives important passages of dialogue that give incredible insight.
A Far Country is also an commentary on less obvious issues: respect for the ‘old ways’, those skills practiced by those who may be farmers or hunters – old, primal skills that are not considered of any importance in a modern world, and yet, are worthy of praise and respect. In some regards, this is where A Far Country reminds me most of The Grapes of Wrath (of course not withstanding the similar setting and plight of the characters), it is perhaps the respect of the working poor that shines through.
It was an incredibly promising story that somehow fell short (despite meeting expectations in terms of a clear narrative arc and clever and suspenseful plot development.) The story got lost in a latter part of the book at times, and meandered to the point of frustration, despite all the sumptuous language and interesting character developments.
Still a good (and quick!) read.
Manson, Daniel., 2007, first published in paperback by Picador. ISBN: 978 0 330 49270 6
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