Young wife confronts her husband’s emotional failings Down Under.
In 1930s Australia, the Better Farming Train moves slowly across the country, displaying modern agricultural techniques and dispensing government-sanctioned advice about practical issues confronting rural families. When the novel opens, Jean, the train’s sewing instructor, is quietly settling into her transitory life. She has made an odd family composed of Sister Crock, who teaches women’s subjects, Mary Maloney, who specializes in dairy cows, Mr. Ohno, a chicken-sexer, and Robert Pettergree, an agricultural specialist who can accurately identify the origin of any soil sample just by tasting it. Jean, 23, innocent and affectionate, is caught up in an intensely passionate relationship with Robert, whom she marries. They move to a farm where Robert can try out his agricultural science. Jean quickly finds that Robert’s exacting dedication to the scientific method extends to her; she is consumed by their sexual passion, but chafes against his need to manage their marriage as though it were an experiment. She is finally compelled to leave, prompted in part by her realization that Robert’s minute factual knowledge of the land conceals the fact that he has no idea how people really fit into the landscape, how they derive emotional rather than physical nourishment from it. The novel, written in the present tense and in the first person, achieves a rare, somewhat unlikely tone, at once languorous and urgent. Tiffany’s lean, controlled writing bears an incredible amount of weight; in a few well-turned phrases, the dusty Australian landscape comes alive, and the author evokes Jean’s fevered, nameless passions with cool restraint. The world of the train, especially the depiction of Mr. Ohno, who sees Jean’s passionate nature before she does, and Mary Maloney, who sees Robert’s limitations but cannot tell Jean, is especially moving.
Lapidary prose and keen historical feeling make it hard to believe this is a first novel.