Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany is a gentle and slim novel that was shortlisted for numerous awards including the Orange Prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Guardian First Book Award and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, and won the Dobbie Award for Best First Book (2006) and the 2006 Western Australian Premier’s Award for Fiction. I read it for my book group and it was lovely to read something set in Australia, by an Australian author. The book starts in 1934 on the Better Farming Train which was a government initiative whereby a train of 14 cars travelled across the state of Victoria educating isolated rural communities on farming and household management practices in the 1920s and 30s. The train was on a crusade to persuade the country that science holds the answers and that productivity is patriotic.
The central character and first-person narrator is Jean Finnegan, a likeable and sensible young seamstress. Jean shares a berth with Mary and a nurturing friendship grows between them that lasts despite the time, distance, and trials that follow. Jean is wooed by a mysterious, quirky and delightful Japanese man who determines the gender of chicks on the train, named Mr Ohno. Having just travelled in Japan I enjoyed reading about Mr Ohno and his deep bows and cheeky, sexualised sense of humour.
For some reason that evades me, Jean instead fell for a terse and rigid soil scientist on the train, named Robert and what follows is what I suppose is a blossoming relationship between them but it certainly is a blossoming without much meaningful dialogue. Even though I’m a scientist I found Robert unbearably dull and closed-minded and he reminded me of a geoscientist I know who carts the same unpopular and unlikely soil science theory around to every conference he can find (and dinner party – what a bore!). Jean and Robert have a strong lust for one another and in the early days they have sex daily and Tiffany takes evident pleasure in describing it but it’s hard to imagine that there was much enjoyment for Jean in these brief, strong and manly experiences. Otherwise I failed to understand what attracted Jean to Robert.
I tell Mary that my marriage to Robert will be about more than love. It will be a modern marriage, in which Robert and I, as free and independent units of production, will implement the proven facts of scientific research.
It was good to read an insight into Robert’s unbearable childhood and home-life and the descriptions of spina bifida were well done but sickening. I felt for both him and his mother for being in such a situation that her life was reduced to what it is. In some ways Robert reminds me of Oscar in Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. I loved that Tiffany created the soil box artwork depicted on the book cover I show here. Often I wonder whether authors would like more say in the cover art chosen for their precious books and this is the first I’m aware of where the author actually created the cover art herself.
The book is well-researched and Tiffany shows her journalistic strengths by depicting the times, geography, country people, and hardships while drawing in propaganda and historical facts from that era. Personally I felt a connection to the book because I am a geologist and I studied soils as part of my undergraduate degree and did a project with soil for my postdoctoral research fellowship. I have tasted soils and could understand some of the testing that Robert did. Also, I grew up ‘on the land’ and some of my family are still farmers, facing daily challenges and hardships. During the latter part of the setting of this book my grandfather was working as a jackaroo in central Australia and my grandmother was in the Australian Women’s Land Army. And so as a child I sat at the knee of my grandparents and listened to stories of the depression, the terrible drought, the dust storms, the rabbit, locust, and mice plagues, and the incredible hardships that everyone faced who was even remotely linked to ‘the land’.
I was sickened by the role that Robert’s proselytizing of unproven scientific dogma played in the economic demise of the Mallee farmers. It was devastating to read about multi-generational farming families becoming destitute and leaving their family farms. I know that the drought was long and relentless and the farmers may have failed anyway but I must admit that I was glad of the downfall of Robert from his lofty height of scientific certainty through failure. At the end of the book I didn’t feel sorrow for Jean but instead saw this as an opportunity for her to flourish for the first time as her own person. However, I wonder how Jean plans to survive? Factory style, chemically controlled, industrialised farming is against my principles and reading about the government role in starting it was interesting and disappointing.
The novella is light weight and I wanted more from it but I enjoyed reading it (over just 2 days) and I’m glad that it allows me to move on to more meaty things!