BOOK REVIEW / Murder or suicide: 'Barn Blind' - Jane Smiley: Flamingo, 5.99 pounds - Jane Smiley finds big dramas in small lives. Marianne Brace met the Iowan tragedian

Marianne Brace
Friday 22 April 1994 23:02 BST

Jane Smiley has 'gone back to horse riding, the way people say they go back to drinking.' And in between riding, taking care of three children and teaching at Iowa State University, Smiley turns out fiction that is constantly surprising in its precision and understatement.

Six foot two and lean as a bean, Smiley feels that her height allows her 'a somewhat different life to most women, a more androgynous viewpoint.' Whatever makes it possible, the fact is that she gives small-scale, domestic stories the power of full-blown tragedies. A dentist tries to prevent his wife admitting an affair; a hippy farmer faces the effects of his homegrown lifestyle on his wayward son; a middle-aged divorcee acknowledges she has given her children 'the experience of perfect family happiness and the certain knowledge that it could not last.'

Since first being published in 1980, Smiley has tackled short stories, novellas, tragic novels and an epic. Investigative rather than expressive (her words), Smiley's style rarely shows off, but her emotional ambitions are huge. And Smiley doesn't lack admirers. How many writers have won America's two most prestigious literary awards - the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics' Circle - for the same book?

Smiley's first novel, Barn Blind is published here this week. It looks forward to her prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres (a brilliant retelling of King Lear set on an American farm) and reveals how Smiley has grown as a writer. Barn Blind focuses on a horse-riding family, ruled by the driving ambitions of an autocratic mother. Her four teenage children who are bullied, coerced and loved into training for The Team, handle the burden of their mother's dream with varying degrees of success.

The timescale is short and the tragedy - the death of the strong-willed John - dispatched rapidly. It's all kept in one dimension, whereas in A Thousand Acres, when Smiley examines what happens when the patriarchal Larry Cook divides his property between three adult daughters, she paints the present while also creating a past and future. With its 'non-American heart and American body', A Thousand Acres is 'a novel about how European ideas came to America and transformed the American landscape.'

Such depth was only possible in a mature work. 'A novel is a complex thing. Why should a person master it first time? If you want a novel to have perspective, wisdom and complexity, then you need a writer who has those things. My favourite novel is Middlemarch - the epitome of a great novel. I don't think George Eliot could have written that at 23.'

Smiley comes from a family of 'compulsive story-tellers' of Norwegian descent. She studied at Vassar, and while working in a stuffed animals factory signed up for a PhD in Old Norse and creative writing at Iowa. Later a Fulbright Scholarship took her to Iceland.

'The day my first child was born was a day on which my imagination became fully engaged,' Smiley has said. 'You have this daily confrontation with who you are. I don't think anybody is fully prepared for their own failures in patience, good humour or judgement as a parent.'

Throughout her work Smiley probes the family and its dynamics: the helplessness of partners who can't gel, the fear of failing one's children, their rivalries, the terrible truths which are spoken or - worse - left unsaid.

Characters have fleeting moments of insight that suddenly rush to the surface. The father in Barn Blind clearing rotten food from the fridge is overwhelmed by the waste everywhere: 'wasted horses, growing old in their pastures, wasted clothing, bought on sale, too small and never used, wasted food . . . the wasted talents of his children . . . No one had ever asked them if they even liked horses.'

Smiley isn't pointing to the inevitable failure of all relationships, only those involving 'hierarchical systems' where one person tries to ride roughshod over everyone else. In the short story Long Distance someone complains: 'Why should daughters be sacrificed to the whims of the father?' It's a theme that is elaborated on in A Thousand Acres. Smiley wanted to rewrite King Lear because she felt that the play is 'unfair to the daughters. It gives Lear a wide latitude about being a father. It says you can do whatever you want and they still owe you everything. If you're a daughter your choices are either murder or suicide.'

When Smiley was 12 her mother remarried. The novelist herself now lives with husband number three - a relationship which works because she has experienced 'the horror' of a bad one. And in Smiley's work it is personal turmoil which has such resonance. The dentist narrator in the meditative novella, The Age of Grief, grapples with the pain of his wife's adultery. He tries to work out what action to take when 'the barriers between the circumstances of oneself and of the rest of the world have been broken down.'

Such barriers fascinate Smiley. 'Families are about power,' she says. 'The idea of the family as a mediating or even a translating force between the individual and the society is really interesting. We have an ideal in which the family is separate from the social dynamic and it's a kind of a buffer between the large, cold cruel world and the self. But there are lots of ways in which the family mimics the larger world.' Smiley chooses rural settings for her fiction because she 'hates cities' and 'likes the great tradition of agricultural novels'.

Even her one urban murder mystery, Duplicate Keys, unfolds in a New York park. Concentrating on the country allows her to focus on small isolated groups like the horse farm in Barn Blind - a self-contained world from which the adolescent children cannot break free. Where people live 'so closely together their secrets are much more potent, much more explosive when they don't manage to keep them. That's a characteristic of small town Northern European life. Gossip comes with the territory of isolated groups.'

This is especially so in The Greenlanders, Smiley's historical epic inspired by Icelandic sagas. Here she explores everyday life in a tiny 14th- century community mapped against a wild, frozen landscape. Smiley calls The Greenlanders 'a sort of proto-American novel. The great theme of American literature is how to find order once it has been given up. In Greenland they are living in the eternal frontier town.'

Smiley is currently writing about another isolated group, an agricultural university. 'What excites me is turning out something new,' she says. 'Others write in the same form but about different themes and ideas. There are things in my work which constantly recur - they just recur in different forms. When I wrote Barn Blind I had no idea that I was going to take up that theme as a life work.'

(Photograph omitted)

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