A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Smiley uses King Lear as her framework for this novel. We have the ailing patriarch, a kingdom in decline and his three contesting daughters. And as you’re reading you’re often wondering to what extent Smiley is going to mirror the Shakespeare plot. The plot of King Lear would be melodramatic vaudeville in the hands of a heavy handed author so Smiley is setting herself a huge challenge here.

The novel is narrated by Ginny, the eldest of the daughters. In other words Goneril, the most treacherous, spiteful and amoral of Lear’s daughters. Ginny though only shares these flaws in the most subtle of ways and it takes a while before they begin to emerge. On the surface she is self-effacing, obedient, submissive to both her father and husband. She is childless, the victim of several miscarriages and thus jealous of her sister Rose who has two girls. She is also jealous of her younger sister Caroline (Cordelia) who has escaped the farm and rural life to become a lawyer in the city. Two events throw the quiet stable long-preserved continuity of life on the farms into disarray. The father hands over the farms to his three daughters – except Caroline expresses doubts as to the wisdom of this decision and he rages and cuts her off; and the return of a neighbouring farmer’s vagabond handsome son and his championing of organic farming. (I had been watching Jess all evening. I had a third eye for Jess alone, a telescopic lens that detected every expression that crossed his face.) These events are portrayed like a calamity of sudden violent weather conditions, bringing to the surface poisons in the soil capable of destroying the most scrupulously observed methods of tilling the land. The connection between the soil and human emotion is a constant factor in the unfolding of this novel.

First thing that strikes is the poise and control of the narrative voice. There’s an awful lot of drama in this novel and with a less measured voice it might easily degenerate into soap opera-ish melodrama. But the poise and the control of the narrative voice is superb throughout. As a result what might occasionally be hard to swallow is easily digested. Then there’s Smiley’s soothsaying insight into human emotion and motive. Her greatest gift as a writer is her ability to expose the secrets of the heart, the pivotal subtleties of feeling on which lives spin. The excavating nuances of her observations were relentlessly thrilling. (“I always feel a little guilty when I break bad news to someone, because that energy, of knowing something others don’t, sort of puffs you up.”) Smiley’s also a master at creating and sustaining dramatic tension. She even writes sex well – an almost unheard of talent in my experience – “I thought about having sex with Jess Clark and I could feel my flesh turn electric at these thoughts, could feel sensation gather at my nipples, could feel my vagina relax and open, could feel my lips and fingertips grow sensitive enough to know their own shapes.”

So why not five stars? The drama is lavished on very thickly. You get caught up in one drama – adultery – but then before any kind of resolution arrives a bigger drama is introduced – child abuse – and then an even bigger one – a plotted murder. Now and again I have to admit I wondered if it might not have been a more comprehensively thrilling and satisfying novel had Smiley kept the King Lear blueprint more of a subliminal refrain. The literally murderous nature of some emotions seemed a bit forced to me. Also I thought she overloaded the father with culpability. He was a fabulously compelling male tyrant already without tarring and feathering him with a new and truly horrendous crime. (“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 betraying us, why he roars at us with such conviction.”) But these are small misgivings in what was a fabulously exciting reading experience.

“Jess came toward Rose and me with a smile that I felt myself hook onto, the way you would hook a rope ladder over a windowsill and lower yourself out of a burning house.”

“We drove in a kind of wholesome silence, carrying our whole long marriage, all the hope and kindness that it represented, with us. What it felt like was sitting in Sunday school singing “Jesus loves me,” sitting in the little chairs, surrounded by sunlight and bright drawings, and having those first inklings of doubt, except that doubt presents itself simply as added knowledge, something new, for the moment, to set beside what is already known.”

Jane Smiley's previous books include The Man Who Invented the Computer, Ten Days in the Hills and Private Li

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