Book of a lifetime: A Thousand Acres, By Jane Smiley
Friday 12 April 2013
I was at university when I first read A Thousand Acres. I was studying English and ensconced in King Lear but this book brought it to life for me in a new and vital way. Jane Smiley had reworked Shakespeare's play into an astonishing novel: three farms, a patriarch, three daughters (Ginny, Rose and Caroline replacing Goneril, Regan and Cordelia); and a struggle over land which was essentially a struggle for power and identity within one family.
Smiley brought to her Lear some echo of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath – the vastness of the American landscape, and the close connection between physical territory (land and its boundaries) and emotional territory. "We've always known families," says the narrator, Ginny, "that live together for years without speaking, for whom a historic dispute over land or money burns so hot it engulfs every other subject, every other point of relationship or affection."
When I re-read it now, I still don't know how Smiley did it, because the voices in A Thousand Acres are so raw and true, right from the first page. It's as if she has channelled them, rather than invented them. It has Biblical sweep – that broad sense of the epic – but Smiley is poignant on the daily-ness of life: cooking, cleaning and the way one sister feels when she finds she can't have children, and has to watch her sibling with a daughter – "so freshly jealous every time I saw them that I could hardly speak".
A Thousand Acres stayed with me, in my unconscious, so that ten years later, when I had the urge to write my first novel, the story came fully formed. It was to be about a farm and the struggle between parents and children over succession and power. How does one generation give it all up to the next generation, without a fight?
My farm is high on the north Yorkshire moors. It couldn't be more different to Smiley's dusty Iowan plains. But it has in common that sense of place as a central character in the action. The father in my novel, Joe Hartle, isn't the vengeful hotheaded Lear of Smiley's novel. He is gentle and loving but he faces, nevertheless, the awfulness of giving up ground and relinquishing his power. And his sons, Max and Bartholomew, are in the midst of that universal struggle we all face, to separate from home in order to become our own people.
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