The property in question is the thousand acres of unmortgaged farmland Larry Cook has spent a lifetime acquiring. His farm is the largest in Zebulon County, Iowa, and testament to the industry of a tough, uncompromising and highly possessive man. One day he announces an astonishing decision to make over the farm to his three daughters, Ginny, Rose and Caroline. This sudden abdication of power stirs uncomfortable feelings. Ginny and Rose, farm wives who have cooked and cared for 'Daddy' all their lives, go along with his baffling scheme. The youngest daughter Caroline, who has flown the coop and practises law in Des Moines, is dubious and expresses some reservations; when she turns up at the family pow- wow Larry slams the door in her face. Once he has signed the farm away, however, the old man flips: he stares for hours across the Iowan cornfields, drives his pick-up around the countryside in a drunken stupor, leaves brand-new furniture to warp out in the rain. Truth is, he's gone barmy.
Does any of this sound familiar? Smiley's novel has transplanted the roots of King Lear into the fertile plough land of the Midwest, deepening and darkening the contemporary setting (the farm crisis of 1979) with multiple mythic resonances. Larry is the autocratic patriarch whose inexplicable surrender of his sovereignty sets in motion a family tragedy, while his elder daughters appear to collude in his downfall. After heaping abominations upon them ('What do you want to reduce me to? I'll stop this building] I'll get the land back] I'll throw you whores off this place. You'll learn what it means to treat your father like this. I curse you]') he stalks off into a violent thunderstorm, ranting and raging the while. That serpent's tooth just keeps getting sharper.
Yet Smiley's people are plainly her own: where we might have expected the wronged Cordelia to take the narrative reins, we instead have Ginny, the most timorous daughter, unfolding the story, a story about Rose and herself and what their father did to them as teenage girls. It is, in a word, horrifying, and while Regan and Goneril do not emerge untainted in this version, it is undoubtedly their lot to have been more sinned against than sinning.
Updating Shakespeare can be risky. How far can you go? Smiley looks to have hit just the right balance, absorbing the structure of Lear but allowing herself all kinds of ambiguities and turnarounds. For instance, she imports a sub- plot that involves a blinded Gloucester figure and his two sons, Loren, the loyal and true one (Edgar) and Jess, returned to the community after 13 years on the lam from the draft. Both Ginny and Rose fall for him, but he never quite fits the role of conniving bastard (Edmund). And what of Caroline, the daughter who has been cast out? For most of the time she is spoilt and priggish. When Larry takes Ginny and Rose to court, Caroline re-enters the story, not to side with her abused sisters but with her father, quite ignorant of the iniquities he has visited on them.
In truth, though, the tragic momentum that A Thousand Acres gathers would in no way be diminished were the Shakespearean echoes to fall silent. It is an amazing novel on its own terms, as the two major prizes it has won - the Pulitzer and the National Book Award - bear witness. (It's the equivalent of one novel winning both the Booker and the Whitbread, sort of).
Certainly this is a story about a hubristic tyrant who divides his kingdom and lives to regret it. It is more engaged than its literary antecedent, however, with the private agonies of loss. Ginny and Rose, far from being the harpies the townsfolk consider them, are victims of a malign fate. Having lost their mother as schoolgirls, each has had her own via dolorosa to tread. Ginny has had five miscarriages, two of which she has suffered in silence. Rose has had a mastectomy, and a husband so volatile he once broke her arm. With a touch that is devastatingly casual Smiley makes us feel an almost tangible sense of those losses.
In terms of the novel's overall design she maps the wretched disintegration of the farm and the family with an unblinking fluency: one is never quite prepared for the next disaster she's got in store. The book seems to have, appropriately enough, an organic force. Ginny, the tyrannized and trivialized daughter, becomes so completely her own character during this story that we seem to be watching a whole life come into focus. What further compels admiration is Smiley's relaxed detailing of rural life: she assumes that the difficulties of hog-farming and the best way to plant tomatoes will rivet our attention, and she's right. 'I spent the morning shampooing the carpet in the living room and the dining room' - who would have guessed that this sentence opens one of the most intriguing chapters in the book?
A Thousand Acres is just about the saddest story I've ever heard, the memoir of a dutiful daughter who discovers herself - her meaning in life - too late. It's a great American tragedy, about the failure of a family's land and the failure of its love. 'At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute,' are Ginny's opening words. Jane Smiley may have glimpsed such a farm from a speeding car any time, just like anybody else. But unlike the rest of us she slowed and stopped, and wondered what sort of people had made this their own private Iowa.
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