Books: Trouble at the mill

Artemis Cooper detects a marital mystery under a story of survival
The Hacienda by Lisa St Aubin de Tern, Virago, pounds 16.99

Lisa St Aubin was 16 when she married. Her husband, Jaime de Tern, was 35, temporarily outlawed from Venezuela for bank-robbing and political agitation. The only thing they had in common was that "we were both fantasists".

They had been together for two years when, in 1972, Jaime took his young wife back to the hacienda in Trujillo that had been in his family for generations, She knew that the Terns had an aristocratic pedigree weakened by centuries of inbreeding, and a family history heavy with madness, obsession and cruelty; but she had not expected him to turn his back on her completely.

"The tenuous lines of communication there had been between myself and the man I had married broke down," she writes. "There were no arguments, fights; there was nothing. It was as though I did not exist." Half-starved, shunned both by his family and by the peasants who worked her husband's sugar plantations, Lisa Tern was forced to choose between her natural passivity and the heroic effort it was going to take to survive.

That she managed at all was thanks to the peasants. At first she thought that by trying to improve the lives of the people of the hacienda, she would gain their confidence. Yet what the peasants needed, almost more than the medicine and vitamins she provided, was a figure of authority: someone to give the orders for the sugar mill while el padron was away, someone to stand up for them in places where they had no power, such as the hospital where their children were left to die uncared for. They nudged her on, inspiring her with their courage and endurance. In time she not only ran the mill, but became a sheep farmer, market gardener, part-time vet and district nurse.

Lisa Tern writes with extraordinary vividness and clarity. She does not boast, there's no self-pity, and she is never afraid to confront her mistakes and defeats. This makes it all the odder that she is so evasive in describing her marriage.

This is underlined by Lisa's letters to her mother, who she knew was worrying about her. "I would have to edit my life, recounting it by the stepping stones between the lies of omission. She had told me not to marry so young, not to marry across culture and language; now I would have to hide from her whatever hardships came my way and string all the good things that came along like beads on a rosary to show her. I began to gather the beads, to tell them to myself for comfort ..."

The "lies of omission", the churning waters between the stepping stones, are what make this book so compelling, and keep curiosity at fever pitch: Is he beating her up? Are they sleeping together? We are never allowed into their bedroom, but as the story progresses things become clearer. Jaime is a dangerous schizophrenic. He can sleep for months on end, and erupt into terrible rages. At one point he begs his wife to tear him away from a pet lamb, which he is in the process of strangling. Eventually he thinks his only salvation is to kill himself, his wife and his daughter: "Maybe it's better if I just come in the night with a shotgun, maybe it's simpler like that," he says. To save herself and her child, Lisa Tern must escape, and abandon the peasants.

Lisa Tern's first novel, Keepers of the House, came out in 1982. At that time the reality of her Venezuelan experience was still so fresh that she approached it as fiction, through the Tern family history. Since then both she and her writing have grown in confidence, and in The Hacienda she faces reality with a courage and skill that left me not knowing which to admire more: her gifts as a writer, or that she had the guts to carve out a place for herself in such an unforgiving world.

Yet the enigma remains. In her very last paragraph, Lisa Tern says that she and her daughter left the hacienda on New Year's Day, 1979. She does not add that Jaime stayed on, and lives there still. Why not? One is left with the impression that there is another story, the story of Jaime and her marriage; but perhaps it is still too dark and painful to be told.