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Fourteen-year-old Isabel was born in a remote village with the gift and curse of “seeing farther.” When drought and war grip the backlands, her brother Isaias joins a great exodus to a teeming city in the south. Soon Isabel must follow, forsaking the only home she’s ever known, her sole ...
Fourteen-year-old Isabel was born in a remote village with the gift and curse of “seeing farther.” When drought and war grip the backlands, her brother Isaias joins a great exodus to a teeming city in the south. Soon Isabel must follow, forsaking the only home she’s ever known, her sole consolation the thought of being with her brother again.
After the lush and intricate plotting of his debut, The Piano Tuner, Mason returns with a story that stylistically stands in stark contrast—a welcome sign that this novelist doesn't care to repeat himself. There's trouble in St. Michael in the Cane, a small town in an unnamed Third World country overwhelmed by drought and the machinations of rich men who pretend the land is theirs. Young Isabel is so deeply attached to her older brother, Isaias, that she can locate him anywhere in a huge stand of sugarcane—evidently, she's got a sixth sense, something troublesome that her family tries to shut off. There's no other magic in their grim lives, except perhaps Isaias's gift for playing the fiddle, which takes him to the big city to earn some money. He returns with a bit of cash, then disappears again, and as the family's fortunes plummet, Isabel is sent to the city to find him. Although beautifully crafted, this is a painful read about people whose lives are as shriveled as plants starched by the relentless sun. Mason should be applauded for ducking easy sentiment, but some readers may find the stubborn despair unedifying. For larger collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ11/1/06.]
A poetic meditation on poverty, development, and the unwavering strength of family ties among the rural poor in the Third World. Set in an unnamed Latin nation, this novel chronicles the search by a 14-year-old for her older brother, who has moved to the city for a better life. The two grew up near a sugarcane plantation, and Isabel cherishes the memory of Isaias taking her on long walks in the hills, where he would find wild cactus fruit and brush off the dirt before giving it to her, or jump into the plants to pick a pink flower. One day, after he reluctantly starts working in the fields, she is ordered to find him. Dwarfed by the tall sugarcane, she is soon lost, but seems to have an uncanny ability to "see through" and locate Isaias. After Isabel sees a spirit in the fields, her mother fears the girl is an "open" person, poised between two worlds, and takes her to a healer, who attempts to "close" her. With exquisite prose and a subtle nod to magical realism, Mason helps readers experience the starvation that causes Isabel and her parents to eat dirt, as well as the discarded tires and chaotic noise of the city. This is a quiet novel for teens who want to understand the poverty that can rend families apart and one girl's determination to see hers whole again. Isabel's journey is one that everyone will understand and no one will forget.
—Pat BangsCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Excerpted from A Far Country by Daniel Mason Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Mason. Excerpted by permission.
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1. A Far Country opens with a description of a long drought that caused the inhabitants of Isabel’s village to leave their homes for refugee “drought camps” when she was three. The hunger that drove them from their homes is “as if something alive, a pale hoofed creature, who tore through on bristling haunches or ambled out of the white forest with a worn suit and a broken face, a monster or a devil” (p. 7). How do the opening pages set the mood for the story that follows?
2. How important is the sense of place in A Far Country? How do you interpret the “far country” of the title?
3. Does the description of their early life together explain the powerful connection between Isaias and Isabel (pp. 12–19)? Does it seem, as the story proceeds, that Isabel feels more for Isaias than he feels for her?
4. Mason chooses to narrate the story primarily through the mind and eyes of Isabel, carrying the reader with her from childhood into adolescence. How does this narrative perspective influence the reader’s experience of the loneliness and exile Isabel endures? How does this choice affect the reader’s sense of Isaias? Does Isabel’s idealization of Isaias make the ending more surprising?
5. What does home mean to Isabel? On the flatbed that takes her to the city Isabel sings a song to herself about a fish swimming home against the current (p. 87); the following two paragraphs reveal her train of thought as she is carried farther away from home. What do these passages tell us about what is unique in Isabel’s character?
6. How do the details about the Isabel’s uncle’s death (p. 42), the road builders (p. 56), the new cane harvesting machines (p. 63), the police brutality (p. 63), and the sign that reads progress into the backlands is progress forward (p. 56) suggest the changes taking place in Isabel’s country? Do these changes spell the destruction of her family and her family’s way of life? Is her father correct in saying that they must send Isabel to the city (p. 63)?
7. Isabel’s mother is against sending Isabel to the city because “she’s smart like an animal’s smart. Like an animal knows what’s near and senses things before they come. I don’t know what good that does in the city” (pp. 64–65). Later, Isabel thinks, “I am like the girl on the flatbed . . . the black-haired girl who spoke a language no one knew. . . . What good is anything I know?” (p. 148). What is different for Isabel in the city? Does being a migrant necessarily involve a dislocation from her past, a sense that her past self is now irrelevant? Does she learn, eventually, how to adapt and how to survive?
8. On the journey to the city, Isabel meets a girl who believes that getting a job as a waitress will allow her to buy a dress, wear lipstick, and get her hair done. She shows Isabel a photograph of “a cream-yellow house with high walls, a fountain, and an aristocratic dog” (p. 72). Similarly, the girl with whom Isabel shares the weekend job of waving flags for a political candidate has romantic ideas about her future. Does Manuela’s life more realistically reflect what girls from the backlands can expect when they trade rural labor for urban labor?
9. What does Alin offer to the people who buy his portraits? What has he done in making the portrait of Isaias that has the effect of making Isabel’s hand shake (p. 143)? When Manuela sees the portrait of Isaias, she says to Isabel, “It’s not elegant at all. Poor people paying so much to pretend they’re something that they’re not is pathetic, not elegant” (p. 141). What does this tell us about Manuela?
10. What details make Isabel’s visit to the disappeared persons department so important to her story (p. 188)? Why, according to the clerk there, do so many people go missing? Why does the man take pity on her? What is the significance of the lines of verse on the wall above the box of pictures of missing persons? (The lines are excerpted from an actual poem called "Morte e vida severina," about the life of a migrant worker in northeast Brazil, by João Cabral de Melo Neto.)
11. While looking at a poster of a missing girl Isabel experiences “a sense of something tearing: a strange sense that seemed to have traveled to her from a far country, and she knew that this girl wouldn’t be found” (p. 200). She can suddenly tell who, among the missing, will be found and who will not. Does this event change her approach to searching for Isaias (pp. 205–09)?
12. How would you describe the story’s structure? If Isabel’s search for Isaias is the central action of the novel, what is the effect of her finding him? Does it resolve the plot’s tension? Does it subvert our notions of what a “happy ending” of a novel might be, and if so, how? Does her eventual acceptance of Alin mean that she has grown beyond her exclusive need for Isaias (p. 243)?
13. Mason’s first novel, The Piano Tuner, was widely admired for the power of its descriptive writing. What are the most notable characteristics of his style? Select a few striking passages for discussion.
14. Why is the final chapter called “Theresa”? What does it suggest about the future? What is the emotional effect of the ending?
Posted June 13, 2007
In this follow-up to his much lauded debut novel i The Piano Tuner /i , Mason delivers another evocative tale with lyrical and stylised prose. Beautiful, simply beautiful: That is the sense you get from the very first page. The author imbues his prose with a musicality and emotional resonance more typical of poetry as he describes the desolate, dystopian world of Isabel, 14, who is struggling to survive in an unnamed, poverty-stricken country. But this initial infatuation just isn't enough to mitigate my sense of frustration as the writer circles his way around a story that suffers from a distinct lack of plot. Yes, the intention is more atmosphere than action, but while I admire the book, I still can't decide whether I actually enjoyed reading it. It is quite possibly, the best book I didn't like so far -am ambivalent response that reminds me of John Banville's 2005 Booker Prize-winning novel i The Sea /i , another debatable triumph of atmosphere over story. While Banville executed lyric turns within the confines of the protagonist's unhinged mind, i A Far Country /i is a visceral and disturbing fairy tale for adults. It is told from the perspective of ISabel, a sensitive and sheltered girl with an uncanny sixth sense. The drought-plagued village of Saint Michael in the Cane is the only home she has ever known, but she soon leaves her parents' failing farm for a nearby urban slum. There, she searches for her missing brother Isaias. Part spiritual quest and part unhealthy obsession, her search is initially riveting but soon grows tiresome as the novel winds its way to an anti-climactic end.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 9, 2007
The language, description and characters in the book are compelling and draw you in from the start. You care about their plight from early on. It did, however, bother me that I didn't have a 'place'/country to put this into better context. But the book is worth the read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 17, 2010
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Posted December 31, 2009
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Posted May 20, 2009
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