Small Mercies by Richard Anderson

‘Farming was a business: a cutthroat business masquerading as a community project.’

‘Dimple’ (Dillon) and Ruth Travers run a mixed property in New South Wales: crops and cattle.  The property is severely drought affected; the future is uncertain.  Their two sons, J and Finnie are grown, have left home and live in the city.  One day Finnie might like to return to the farm.  Ruthie and Dimple have a routine which governs their lives, provides structure and predictability even as they struggle to obtain enough feed for their remaining cattle and to make planting decisions.

And then, two things happen.  While helping one of his cows, Dimple hears a wealthy landowner on the radio.  Wally Oliver it is.  Dimple knew his father.  Wally has a message for small farmers like Ruthie and Dimple:

‘.. that drought could be a good thing because it removed the bottom rung of farmers.’

 Ruthie receives a letter.  She needs treatment.  She decides that waiting a couple of days won’t matter.  She doesn’t tell Dimple straightaway: she wants time to think.

Ruthie and Dimple decide to take a brief break from the farm.  They are going to confront Wally Oliver: someone has to tell him that he is wrong.

Ruthie and Dimple set off on what becomes a two-night trip, a journey to see Wally Oliver.  This is a journey which tests them as all the routines that simultaneously shield and occupy their marriage are put to one side.  They talk, they share their feelings.

We travel with Ruthie and Dimple, as they revisit the past and make plans.  They talk about life off the farm, and make a decision seems right (after all, change may be necessary) but then regret. 

I really enjoyed this novel.  Both Dimple and Ruthie are finely drawn characters.  Theirs is a long-standing marriage, with routines largely dictated by the farm, where self becomes subjugated by responsibility, where the uncertainties of the future can become overwhelming.  And absent of routine, opportunities arise to explore the possibility of change.  Restlessness is not confined to the young.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith


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