Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living By Carrie Tiffany Picador August 2005 ISBN 0-330-42191-3, jacketed pbk with b&w photos
It’s 1934, Australia is following the rest of the world into the great depression, and war is looming on the horizon. The government sponsored Better Farming Train has been set up to bring the hope of science to country farmers as an antidote to these crises. Agricultural science has all the answers, and the train is a free service to help farmers increase crop yields, animal size and output, and even improve on "infant welfare." Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living is Carrie Tiffany’s first novel and winner of the 3002 Victorian Premier’s Award for an unpublished manuscript. It has also been selected for the UWA Perth International Arts Festival's One Book 2006.
The novel has two voices. The first and most evocative is the first person, present tense of Jean Finnegan, a young seamstress working in the "shiny afterthought" of the women’s car of the train. Jean’s voice is both thoughtful and observant, and slightly naïve. The combination works well, producing an appealing character who reveals the story through her own sensual discovery, both of herself and the new worlds that she inhabits:
"Living on a train is like living inside the body of a snake. We are always leaning into the curves, always looking forwards, or backwards, never around. Here we are arriving at some tiny siding, just a few neat-edged buildings and their sharp shadows. Here we are again, a few days later, pulling away, all of us craning out of the windows, gazing down the long canyon of railway line.(1)"
Jean’s voice is crisp, but retains a distinctively feminine and youthful sense of wonder. Her observations are thorough, and she refuses to judge her colleagues eccentricities. These range from the dogmatic Sister Crock, who heads the woman’s section and lectures in subjects like baby rearing and hygiene, Mary Maloney, who lectures in cooking and collaborates in saving the "Folly Cow," the oddly sensual chicken sexer Mr Ohno, beautiful horticulturist Kit Collins who enjoys substituting an orange for a cricket ball, or soil taster Robert Pettergree. It is the latter who, despite his incommunicative nature and imperfect appearance of red hair and jutting out chest, attracts Jean, although to a certain extent, is seems as if he pulls her in solely by the strength of his desire and enthusiasm.
The novel is set amidst the heat, drought and plagues of Wycheproof, a real country Victorian town around 290 miles north west of Melbourne. Robert and Jean work together to apply Robert’s stringent and certain rules for scientific living to farming, including a rigorous testing program, animal husbandry, and Robert’s additional government work to assist the other farmers through the careful application of expensive phosphorous. The science isn’t quite as infallible as Robert thinks though, and not everything can be controlled. World events, mice plague, wheat rust, history, genetics and personal passion all impeded on Robert’s perfect plans, opening some doors and closing others:
The other narrative voice in the novel is a third person omniscient one, which recounts Robert’s sad upbringing. Although not as immediate or driving as Jean’s, there are similarities, as if an older Jean were recounting Robert’s history. His own health struggles, and the sad history of his brother and system are described in a moving way, which also increases the reader’s sympathy with a man who would otherwise be unappealing:
"The wound is the most insistent part of the baby; it is brightly red, more liquid and more pulingly alive than his face. Robbie makes his mouth in the shape of the hole and traces his tongue around his lips as if following its contours. (106)"
Tiffany’s characterisations, even those minor ones like Mr Ohno, Ern McKettering, or Robert’s mother Lillian, are lovingly rendered, as are the country towns and farmers visited by the Better Farming Train, or the resistance felt by the farmer’s wives as they share tea and cake with Jean. The descriptions remain vivid:
"Lunch is under a gum tree on the banks of the river. If it is hot we will swim first and then eat so as to be safe from cramps. The water is so bitterly cold it forces me quickly out into the sun. The Avoca is the colour of long-brewed tea, its waters oily with shadows from the sugar gums. Robert’s body is a patchwork beside it - red arms and face and neck, the rest of him pale and freckled. (135)"
Tiffany’s writing is taut, powerful and full of life. The story is often quite humorous, from the slapstick comedy of Mary Maloney’s "shit alert. She says ‘Jump now, Sister,‘ as a huge Border Leicester ram aims a clod of pellets in front of us." (3), "Toilet Hints for the Modern Mother," Mr Ohno’s strange syntax or gifts, to the more subtle irony of Jean’s quality trials, or Robert Pettergree’s endless sampling, rules or statements about the infinite potential of scientific progress. This isn’t an anti-science novel however, even though neither Robert nor his science fares very well. Instead it is a novel that questions a science which "permits no ideals or sentimentality" (200). Behind all the science are things that simply cannot be regulated: hunger and love, and these two emotions underpin what is a very powerful, universal, and yet historically grounded novel.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader web site http://www.compulsivereader.com/html. Her large body of published work encompasses reviews, literary theory, articles, poetry, fiction, Sleep Before Evening: a novel, Quark Soup: a book of poetry, and a nonfiction book, The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything.