I knew Daniel Mason from his super debut novel The Piano Tuner. And I felt an unjustified kinship with him on the basis that he was a classmate of a close friend’s daughter in medical school at UCSF. Mason is another one of those medical literary folks. It seems unfair for one person to be so gifted both in both the arts and the sciences. But leave that be. I was eager to get to this second effort and happy when a relative finished it while visiting from out out of town and left it with me. As so often happens with sophomore efforts, despite the great notices on the book jacket, I was rather disappointed.
Like The Piano Tuner, A Far Country is about a journey. This one by an untutored young girl rather than by a craftsman on a job. Although the fourteen-year-old’s journey cannot compare in distance to the one from England to Myanmar, it’s relatively just as far from Isabel’s backwoods village to the big city. She goes there to escape drought-induced impending starvation and to search for her brother, who has apparently fed himself to the burgeoning urban monster. She stays with a cousin, whose baby she cares for while the cousin works, and hopes to see Isaias somewhere. The country and city of A Far Country are as generic as the title. It could be any third world place where people live on the edge of starvation, are oppressed by governments and landowners. I kept thinking of Africa, but there’s the name Isabel, not to mention the cover illustration with its caucasian-looking hair. So maybe we’re in South America. Mostly, though, it doesn’t matter. This is a journey into deprivation, into a world where prosperity is measured in coffee spoons. And there are many wonderful passages. My favorite is a Steinbeck-like recitation of the movements of the poor of the city. Mason evokes The Grapes Of Wrath as he describes how they prostate themselves to the privileged to put food on their own tables. However, the central weakness of the book haunts the narrative so pervasively that it is hard to properly appreciate the virtues. The problem is Isabel’s passivity. She does not undertake her journey voluntarily. Her parents send her away because they can’t afford to feed her. She’s somewhat sad about that, but does not rebel. She simply accepts her circumstances and thinks vaguely of the possibility that she’ll find her brother. Once there, she does as she’s told and hopes Isais will show up. A number of events and people cross her path, but she reacts little. When a friend finally encourages her to seek real employment and she’s humiliated and rejected by a rich woman, Mason describes her as boiling with anger. However, she never acts on the fury, and any hope the reader has of Isabel finally initiating some action are soon dashed.
I found the ending very strong and wish the rest of the book had lived up to it. As it stands, Isabel is such a weak heroine that her actions at the end aren’t quite credible. Unfortunate. Hope number three turns out better. There will be a third, I’m confident. He’s too good to quit and fall back on surgery.