Review: The Year of the Farmer by Rosalie Ham, Pan Macmillan

The reader looking for a good yarn in a rural setting will find it here.
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Rosalie Ham’s The Year of the Farmer.

Rosalie Ham takes the reader to a small Australian country town that is suffering from five consecutive years of drought. The town and its surrounding area is populated by farmers, townies, riparians, regulars and ferals. The riparians, as you might expect, have river-frontages. Ham defines the regulars as those that spend most of their time in much the same spot in the town’s only pub. And the ferals are ‘grubby rope-haired ring-ins, Centrelink avoiders all’.

Prominent among the farmers is Mitch Bishop, an exaggerated version of an old-fashioned country man passionate about life on the land. He is a man who loves his dog and his sheep and his guardian donkeys. A man trapped in a loveless and childless marriage. To make things worse, the drought threatens him with financial ruin.

Mitch’s wife, Mandy is disliked and snubbed by all but the ferals, not without reason. She is a particularly nasty-minded and spiteful person with a destructive streak. 

The plot includes the complex machinations of self-interested people manipulating water rights and water allocations. There is also a love story involving Mitch and his former girlfriend.

The reader looking for a good yarn in a rural setting will find it here so long as they are not looking for subtlety of characterisation. There is plenty of action involving the locals in an environment where everyone knows almost everyone else. There are fine descriptions of a variety of farming activities in drought conditions, and the reader will grow to love Mitch’s donkeys and his faithful dog as much as he does.

After the many years of drought, one of the local women is asked what she wants in life. She replies, ‘I want the farmers to hang at the pub, joking and laughing, I want lots of mums at school fetes, and I want fundraising film nights and cocktail parties again, and kids screaming on the footy oval and cricket teams and at the swimming hole’. They are all activities the prolonged drought has killed.

However, those attracted to this book by the blurb’s description of it as ‘a darkly satirical novel’ may be disappointed. Certainly satire includes the use of exaggeration to criticise people’s stupidity and vices. Both Mitch as quintessential farmer and Mandy as a frustrated evil person fit the bill, but it is hard to discern to what end. And the intrigues in relation to the water rights border on the farcical rather than the satirical. As she did in the The Dressmaker, here Ham pits ‘goodies’ against ‘baddies’ in a small country town. But the over-the-top nature of the protagonists, and the reductive generalisations about the locals according to which group they belong, mean that readers might well enjoy her earlier novel more than this one. 

3 stars ★★★
The Year of the Farmer
By Rosalie Ham
ISBN: 9781760558901
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: 25/09/2018
Category: Fiction & related items / Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)
Fiction & related items / General
Imprint: Picador Australia
Pages: 336
Price: $32.99 

Erich Mayer
About the Author
Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog