I must say that this American reading challenge has completely transformed my summer holiday reading. No sooner do I lay down one extraordinary novel than another comes along. I had read Jane Smiley before, but the novel on that occasion was Moo and, at that time, my son was still very young and demanding. It passed in a whirlwind of episodic scenes and characters that left little impression on my sleep-deprived mind. The experience of A Thousand Acres suggests I should go back and reread, but then again what gripped me in this narrative was its terrible, claustrophobic trajectory into disaster. The tightness of its plotline, the concentration of its ideas, and the beauty of Smiley’s prose forged together into an arrow’s flight into meltdown. It’s often said that the twentieth century is the place where tragedy is replaced by trauma, but this novel seemed to me to narrate their convergence, the moment when one creates the other.
The story focuses on the Cook family and the bountiful thousand acre farm they share. Head of the family is brutal patriarch, Larry Cook, a perverse God within his own household and a prosperous farmer and businessman. His daughters, Rose and our narrator, Ginny, live next door and with husbands, Pete and Ty, compose a farming cooperative, although it is clear that it has been a dictatorship up until the story begins. The third daughter, Caroline, has escaped the farming legacy and lives away from her family, practicing law. The novel opens with the shocking moment when Larry Cook, a little drunk and overwrought at a neighbouring farmer’s party, declares his retirement and his intention to make over the farm to his daughters. What is initially seen as the moment when dutiful offspring are rightly acknowledged becomes a nightmare of epic proportions. The first rift occurs when Caroline decides she does not want her share of the farm, but this is only the hairline crack that provides a harbinger of what is to come. Within weeks of his retirement, Larry Cook succumbs to a violent and abusive madness that tears the family apart, humiliating them before the rest of the local farming community. Cook’s madness seems to arise from a clash between his declining faculties, and his refusal to be ‘told what to do’ by his daughters. It seems to be an exacerbation of his natural tyrannical character, but it is represented to the county at large as the consequence of the heartless and unnatural lack of respect shown him by Ginny and Rose. In fact nothing could be further from the truth; as the narrative unfolds so it becomes chillingly clear that Rose and Ginny have been long term handmaidens of their father’s every desire, particularly after their mother’s early death. The authoritative figure so admired within the farming community turns out to conceal a beast of a man who has shamelessly beaten and abused his two eldest daughters.
Now I don’t know much about the story of King Lear to which this narrative cleverly appeals. Many years ago I saw an atrocious student production of it, in which only a tenth of the dialogue was spoken by a cast overcome by an excessive fit of improvisation. At some point in rehearsals, one of the actors had clearly said ‘It’s not fair that only King Lear gets to be mad!’, and the director had agreed. I only knew who King Lear was because I recognized the student playing him. But I do know that Cordelia’s love for her father is contrasted with Regan and Goneril’s hypocritical, grasping domination. A Thousand Acres provides a masterly twist on this scenario. Cordelia – or Caroline – can love her father better than Rose and Ginny because they have traded with their bodies for hers to be left unmolested. She can love him, because she has never had to love him the way they did. Caroline is in blissful ignorance over the fate she has been rescued from, and to the end accuses her sisters of an unnatural lack of affection towards their father. ‘The fact is that the same sequence of days can arrange themselves into a number of different stories’ Ginny tells us, and the clash of differing narratives provides one of the hypnotic conflicts in this moving tale, a clash that has impacted upon each and every character in the drama and cannot be resolved.
Paternal abuse has turned Rose hard and angry: ‘Daddy thinks history starts fresh every day, every minute, that time itself begins with the feelings he’s having right now. That’s how he keeps on betraying us, why he roars at us with such conviction. We have to stand up to that, and say, at least to ourselves, that what he’s done before is still with us, still right here in this room until there’s true remorse. Nothing will be right until there’s that.’ But Rose’s anger will remain unanswered, for the madness that has overtaken Larry Cook appears to be a final barrier against self-awareness. Ginny, by contrast, is stuck in peace-making inertia, perpetually afraid, uncertain, empty, the five miscarriages she has suffered standing as metaphor for her inability to create new life out of the broken, battered remains of her own.
Focalising the narrative viewpoint through Ginny’s eyes makes this a powerful tale of inequality, of victimhood. The narrative returns restlessly to the rift between appearance and reality, with Ginny and Rose struggling to maintain above all else the clean and well-kept look of the farm as they fight a legal battle with their father for its possession. In 1970s Midwestern America the surface appearance still holds infinite power, and those who are forced to live the dark, uncomfortable reality concealed by it are locked into victimized stasis. ‘At home, it was galling to think of how others were talking about us, bad enough to think of their ridicule or disapproval, but worse to think how they were surely entertained by us, how this stinging, goading, angry self-consciousness that impelled me every day, every minute, to seek relief was nothing to them, something they couldn’t feel and hardly ever gave a thought to.’ Whilst this is ostensibly about the neighbours, it is equally about the unspoken battle for recognition between Cook and his daughters. A year or so ago I undertook some literary research on child abuse, and whilst I’d felt quite calm reading the necessary material, I wrote about it with a white-hot passion that almost alarmed me. When you have children of your own, the need to protect the innocent is not a rational edict but a blood-drumming, half-crazed imperative. The thing is that children have to love and be loved to ensure their existence, and so it is all too easy to abuse them. The power adults have over children is fundamentally disproportionate, for law, security and everyday survival are all in their hands. The young are at an immediate disadvantage, for the inarticulate, unformed child is hard to recognize and understand when measured against adult standards. The brilliance of Smiley’s writing lies in never stating this explicitly, but in creating a fictional world of wounding imbalance, between the vastness of the land and the tiny figures who attempt to tame it, between the authoritative rule of men and the domestic servitude of women, between the public version of stories and their ugly, private reality. Wherever you look in this tale, an impossible battle for recognition and recompense needs to be fought, but the injustice can never be righted, just as the distortion wrought by abuse can never be fully healed.
What can be done when those in authority abandon reason and compassion? What can be made of stories that are impossible to tell because unlikely to be believed? It’s a measure of Smiley’s skill here that such questions perpetually inform the narrative while it moves steadily and inexorably towards its tragic conclusion. The rich, complex metaphorical dimension of this novel fits beautifully into the lucid, gripping plotline, and not a word is wasted or misplaced. Most of all, this novel moved me emotionally, made me feel the lost desperation of its characters, without ever letting sentiment cloud its hard-edged brilliance. Actually what I most feel now, typing this, is inarticulate in relation to its subtle eloquence. If you haven’t read it already, go and do so now, that’s really all there is to say.