Small Mercies by Richard Anderson is one of those books that should be mandatory reading for all Australians. I certainly hope somebody in education circles SERIOUSLY contemplates putting it into English syllabuses as I don’t think most city based Australians have a clue about the mind games that drought inflicts on people and places.
I also hope there’s not many rural dwellers in Australia who don’t love the place that they live, and feel some responsibility for it’s health and welfare. It’s hard to explain to anybody who hasn’t experienced the feeling – but the impact of living in drought – something that’s totally uncontrollable – does weird things to your brain, and the more frequent it becomes the worse the pressure. There’s such an overwhelming sense of responsibility for stock, crops, your family’s personal welfare and survival, and in most cases, the natural environment around you. You live up close and in daily direct contact with that environment when you live in rural locations – even if you don’t articulate or acknowledge the closeness it’s always there. Seasons, and weather changes are obvious, the limits on resources like water on a daily basis, and the constant need to manage all resources carefully is never ending. You see the changing treescapes, the erosion and the sheer lack of water in the world. You can’t avoid the way the soil around you dries, cracks, turns to concrete, and the way that bare soil inevitably becomes airborne dust. That dust in everything, on everything, that constant sense of dry choking, dirty, dusty, exhausted air. The constant wariness of fire, the myriad of daily decisions, the awful sense of your responsibility over what lives and what is moved on, or dies. Every. Single. Day.
Small Mercies expresses so much of the effect that sort of living has on people. The damage that having to live a life on hold causes, the consequences of stress on a property and a farming couple, which up until reading this book, I hadn’t considered as a form of PTSD. People living in that sort of constant tension make odd decisions, do odd things, react poorly, and sadly, often times pull away from each other, or, if they are luckier, smarter or just more bloody-minded, find a way to adapt and come together.
Set around the personal stories of Dimple and Ruthie, a couple struggling to keep the family farm going in the midst of ongoing, never-ending drought, it’s heartening to see them get their backs up when a wealthy landowner pontificates that small farmers like them are doomed, and they should just go away, and leave agriculture to the large operators like him. Their backs are up enough to send them off on a physical journey to confront him about that statement, but it’s the emotional journey that this triggers that is the important bit.
For a novel that covers a lot of territory (physical and emotional) in a pretty short space of time, Small Mercies isn’t heavy going though. Anderson writes in an engaging manner, with just enough humour to lift the black to grey, without attempting in anyway to gloss over the seriousness of the subject matter. He even manages to weave in a very realistic love story, of two people who, when the chips are down, find out that they do really need each other.
Moving, perceptive and very readable Small Mercies is populated by real and accessible characters, set in the topical landscape of drought-ravaged rural Australia. Recently I’ve heard of a Canberra Parliamentary Bookclub. I’d suggest we all start recommending this as an entry they should be reading.
For more of Karen Chisholm’s book reviews, check out AustCrimeFiction
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Providence (Max Barry) – book review
- Boxed (Richard Anderson) – book review
- Consolation (Garry Disher) – book review
Australian Crime Fiction began in 2006 to provide a database of crime authors and books from Australasia in the crime genre. Now featuring book reviews, the site is dedicated to crime fiction and thrillers, with a heavy emphasis on Australian and New Zealand content.