BOOK REVIEW / That way (in the mid-West) madness lies: 'A Thousand Acres' - Jane Smiley: Flamingo, 5.99

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The Independent Culture
AN AMERICAN critic, quoted on the cover of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, says that it has 'the stark brutality of a Shakespearian tragedy'. It doesn't take long to discover what gave him that idea. With disarming guilelessness, Jane Smiley hardly pauses to change the names before transplanting an uncannily familiar old autocrat and his three daughters to rural Iowa circa 1979 and proceeding to re-enact that resonant drama to the accompaniment of much conversation about hog pens and grain silos, much eating of tuna-fish casseroles and lime Jell-O.

As it turns out, stark brutality is not quite Smiley's style. Her tone is often colloquial and confiding, her wry observations of the minutiae of life in heartland America reminiscent of Anne Tyler. Her singular gift, though, is the grace with which she can move up through the literary gears to imbue her long, gripping, multi-layered narrative with real grandeur and moral seriousness.

The irascible patriarch is widower Larry Cook, grandson of dour English settlers whose labour transformed the marshes of Zebulon County into fertile agricultural land. If you seem to sniff a serious - and not quite original - metaphor in these flat, well- husbanded acres which need constant drainage, which are, indeed, afloat on an ocean of tainted water, you are right. When Larry suddenly decides to hand over the land to his daughters - ostensibly to avoid inheritance tax, but he is an unfathomable old party - we know that bad times are just around the corner. Of the three women, Caroline, the youngest, is the one who got away, to college and a career in Des Moines - whereas Ginny (who narrates the novel) and Rose married local boys and stayed on the farm. Caroline has only to express a moment's doubt about Larry's intentions to find the door slammed, literally, in her face. Within days of signing the papers, Larry is in a paranoid rage, determined to get his land back. What comes bubbling up through the ensuing mess of acrimony, marital conflict and (this being America) litigation, is a murky and toxic past.

The novel is punctuated with dramatic set-pieces shamelessly filched from Shakespeare, which erupt with the numbing irrationality of real-life catastrophes, to be picked over afterwards for traces of meaning. One of them, a grotesque accident that leaves a neighbouring farmer blind, is likened to a dust storm on a sunny day: 'Its aftermath got in everywhere, into the solidest relationships, the firmest beliefs, the strongest loyalties, the most deeply held convictions you had about the people you had known most of your life'.

The dark secret at the heart of the book turns out to be (wouldn't you know it?) incest, Larry's long-ago habit of seeking comfort, when drunk, in the beds of teenage Rose and Ginny. The point at which the two women begin at last to talk about this could easily be the point at which the novel disappeared in a froth of soap bubbles. In fact, it is the beginning of an extraordinarily affecting discussion about guilt and responsibility, about 'how we judge those who have hurt us when they show no remorse or even understanding'.

It is this that gives the novel its weight, but its emotional power comes, too, from the steady accretion of piercingly good small things: Rose and Ginny as children, playing among the whispering folds of fabric in their mother's clothes cupboard; Ginny being called out of class and knowing without being told that it is because her mother has died; adult Rose's hand, after she has had a mastectomy, straying with unconscious enquiry to the place under her arm where the muscles used to be. Jane Smiley may be an inveterate borrower, but her voice is all her own.