The fragrance of grain and hay : A MAP OF THE WORLD Jane Hamilton Doubleday £14.99

Natasha Walter enjoys the cows and sunshine in a great new American novel
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The Independent Culture
Bobbie Ann Mason, E Annie Proulx, Jane Smiley, Jayne Anne Philips, Louise Erdrich, Anne Tyler and now Jane Hamilton - they're all doing it. Over the last few years, the great American novel has become the province of the great American woman. Glor ious, sweeping narratives that reviewers can only describe as page-turners, a nuanced ear for the fractured dialogues of modern American life, well-muscled tales that deal with violence, crime and family breakdown, and above all a strong, lyrical sense o f place characterise these extraordinary books.

A Map of the World has all those things. The story is fierce enough - about a fine young woman called Alice who gets sucked into a tragic spiral. First her best friend's daughter drowns in her pond; then charges of sexual abuse levelled by children at the school where she works threaten to take away her liberty. Throughout these horrible events, told with the precision and chill of a nightmare, Hamilton's sense of place lifts the tale into a mythic realm.

Alice is married to Howard, who is a dairy farmer. Their farm is sandwiched into a suburban sprawl, the house on it is a wreck, Howard spends weeks picking stones off the fields, cows die, crops fail, neighbours complain about the smells and noise of a working farm - and yet it is a pastoral idyll. "Despite the encroachment, Howard often felt, and I did too, that we were living in a self-made paradise on the last dairy farm in Prairie Center." The stinking reality of farming adds to that, does not detract from it: "Howard always smelled and through the house his scent seemed always to be warm. His was a musky smell, as if the source of a muddy river, the Nile or the Mississippi, began right in his armpits . . . I was sure that that morning our family was connected by a ribbon, a pure, steaming, binding, inviolable stench, going from room to room and out to the barn."

Alice's descent, from happiness to tragedy to mere acceptance of life, is told through her physical surroundings as much as anything. Her friend's daughter dies in the very pond that she sees as her family's "saviour", that boiling hot summer. And then she is ripped from her smelly paradise, and thrust into the tiny cage of prison. After release, the thick, intense American experience of the land is behind her. Howard has sold the farm to pay her legal fees, and they have only ersatz dreams. They live i n a tiny urban apartment without a garden, but Howard still works with cows, at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago: "There is the feeling of being in the midst of noise and trash and people and life. What throws me off, every night, when Howard comes home, is the fact that he still smells like cows, like silage. Even when I am prepared for his entrance I have to brace myself against the fragrance of grain and hay and manure, against all that those smells conjure, against hot summer afternoons and the marve l of the pop-up baler throwing a bale of hay onto the wagon."

This heartwrenching American sense of home makes a swansong out of so much American literature. In A Map of the World it is only a backdrop - but what a backdrop! - to a pacy tale of prison life and courtroom drama. In prison, Alice goes through what Hamilton clearly sees as a kind of Tolstoyan passage into redemption through acceptance of her lot. The women that surround her, their lives of unrelieved tragedy and different ethical codes jolt her into a new moral awareness, a new love of life.

But the courtroom drama alone would keep you turning the pages. Once a vicious, disturbed little boy has accused Alice, his standoffish school nurse, of causing the revolting traumas that his mother in fact caused, a whole series of conventional but brilliantly observed plot mechanisms are set whirring. Hamilton is perfect at drama, keeping you hanging on from revelation to revelation, with enough red herrings and mini-denouements to keep you pinned to the page.

Hamilton makes things easier for herself than they might have been by making the false accuser a nasty little boy rather than a confused little girl, and the falsely accused a devoted mother rather than a footloose bachelor. But her desire to explore ourodd contemporary mores, with their well-meaning emphasis on finding and telling, is morally resonant. If this book isn't turned into a coldly compelling film, with Jodie Foster as Alice, so much the worse for Hollywood.

But what the reader will remember is all the other stuff. The honest, puzzled love that Alice gives to her difficult children, for instance, or, above all, the lost heat of the sun on the hay in Prairie Center. "If I am awake in the early mornings I watch Howard down the hall, sitting by himself in the kitchen, running his hands over the table we brought from the farm. His hands move in swirls, as if the table is a Ouija board, about to give him an important message for the future." Our need to keep home alive is told here in prose as sweet as it is bitter.

I opened my eyes on a Monday morning in June last summer and I heard, far off, a siren belting out calamity. It was the last time I would listen so simply to a sound that could mean both disaster and pursuit. Emma and Claire were asleep and safe in theirbeds, and my own heart seemed to be beating regularly. If the barn was out the window, clean, white; the grass cropped as close as golf course; the large fan whirring in the doorway, then my husband Howard was all right. I raised up to take a look. It was still standing, just as I suspected it would be. I had never said out loud a little joke: Everywhere that barn goes, Howard, you are sure to be close behind. He was a philosophical and poetical farmer who bought Golden Guernseys because he liked theircolor and the way "Golden Guernsey" floated off his tongue. I worried about his choice when we bought the farm because I was certain that poetry is almost never rewarded. Now I wonder if our hardworking, God-fearing commu nity members punished us for something as intangible as whimsy.