Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
When I first read the title of this book, I imagined the storyline would be something that highlighted the dedication of this group of people who provide us with the sustenance to survive. I was wrong in my assumption.
This story does have a farmer at its centre. Mitch Bishop is a pleasant guy, trapped in a loveless marriage, accused of being weak as he struggles to survive on a farm suffering from drought. As Mitch tells the Water Board representative who is trying to get him to spend more money, ‘Mate, it’s been a long drought and I’ve got worn-out machinery and sick donkeys, an unhappy wife, a deaf father and there are dogs and foxes happy to eat my only profitable thing, my sheep, and I’m up to pussy’s bow with every fucking thing, at the moment, alright’ (97)?
Towards the end of the book, Mitch decides to do something about his situation. ‘This is my year. Take it or leave it’ (309). Maybe this is the link to the title?
For me, it was the women in the town who were the main focus in the storyline and they were not represented in a very admirable way. They were always trying to score off each other and to be the focal interest for any new male in the town. Stacey, one of the new guys to town, described the women as ‘his swimming hole stalkers…, the neat and tidy ones with swinging pony tails, and the older ones with their dogs or frail spouses and the fat-bummed cast from Single Mothers Street (who wore) snug outfits that afforded no speculation, but should have’ (211).
Among these were Mandy, Mitch’s unloving and unloved wife, and Neralie, Mitch’s ex-girlfriend, who, finding life on a farm not to her liking, had gone to Sydney only to later return to re-open the local pub. She is constantly in touch with Mitch much to Mandy’s annoyance. Then there are the two who share the one man and Glenys “Gravedigger” Dingle from the Water Board who is more interested in filling the local lake to get business and tourist dollars than in helping the farmers.
When Neralie returns to town, Mitch’s father predicts, ‘That’ll set a cat among the pigeons’. Cal, (who was an octogenarian), felt more hopeful than he had in years (101). Tensions do escalate.
This book follows the same pattern as the author’s earlier one which was such a success. It is set in a small rural town beside a sluggish, brackish river. The occupants form many factions, often working against each other as they try to elevate their own position of importance. There are also those who have alternative life-styles and vastly different philosophies. Revenge is a central thread.
To this mix, the author highlights the tensions that exist between those who wish to share the coveted resource, water, and the pressure put on the interested parties by organisations like a government Water Irrigation Board.
According to Sue Maslin, producer of The Dressmaker, ‘Rosalie Ham deftly sharpens the razor edge between comedy and tragedy. The Year of the Farmer is a book that delights, appals but never waivers in its brutal honesty. If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.’
I cannot say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I found it somewhat depressing and the actions of some of the characters over-the-top. However, having watched the film The Dressmaker again recently, I believe that I might have been more appreciative of this storyline if it had been in a film form.
Picador Pan Macmillan