Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living - Book of the Month
by Carrie Tiffany
“There are days of slow chugging through the wheat. I look out of the window at the engine as it rounds a bend. 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………..” So begins this extraordinary first novel by Carrie Tiffany.
It is 1934 and the government ‘Better Farming Train’ is bringing expert scientific advice to the smallholders and farmers of the vast Australian countryside.
Skilled persons, who teach and advise these small town folk, staff the train. They are there to instruct that, in order to increase productivity, it is the farmers’ patriotic duty to use the application of science in their daily lives. Among these experts are our two main protagonists – the narrator, Jean Finnegan (seamstress) and Robert Pettergree (agronomist).
In the stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere of the train their fate is sealed after an unexpected, passionate encounter amid the heady drone of the bees in the ‘honey car’.
Bound by this action (though they don’t speak of it again) the two are married and set up home in the Mallee a remote and unforgiving region. Here they live an impoverished existence - both emotionally and materially. While Robert experiments with his ‘super-phosphate’ and scientific wheat production methods, Jean dutifully records the yields and quality of the bread produced. Their home is a laboratory, their lives an experiment.
A series of calamitous crop failures turn the region into a dust-bowl and Robert is blamed (and blames himself) for the tragedy that follows.
This is a captivating book beautifully written in simple spare prose and,
in a rather nice editorial quirk, the text is interspersed with photographs - as though placed there by Jean herself.
EVERYMAN’S RULES FOR SCIENTIFIC LIVING was shortlisted for the 2006 Orange Prize and has been shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.
Read our interview with Carrie Tiffany.