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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

From the best-selling author of The Piano Tuner, a stunning new novel about a young girl’s journey through a vast, unnamed country in search of her brother.
Raised in a remote village on the edge of a sugarcane plantation, fourteen-year-old Isabel was born 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. But when she arrives, she discovers that Isaias has disappeared. Weeks and then months pass, until one day, armed only with her unshakable hope, she descends into the chaos of the city to find him.
old with astonishing empathy, and strikingly visual, the story of Isabel’s quest–her dignity and determination, her deeply spiritual world–is a universal tale about the bonds of family and a sister’s love for her brother, about journeys and longing, survival and true heroism.


From the Compact Disc edition.

Excerpt

In the valley of the village they would one day name Saint Michael in the Cane, the men and women waited, turning the November soil and watching the sky.

Clouds came, following the empty riverbeds on long solitary treks from the coast.

Sometimes it rained. Little green leaves unfurled from the dry branches, and a soft grass bloomed on the floor of the thorn scrub they called the white forest because it was too poor for color. The men and women watched the sky distrustfully then. Sometimes the rain fell so close they could smell it, but if it didn't fall again in that corner of earth, the leaves turned brown and rattled in the wind. That could kill a field, they said: a single rain and then empty skies. It raised your hopes, the land's hopes. They called it green drought and swore at it under their breath. Rain is like a man, said the women, It flatters you with sweet gifts, but it is worse than nothing if it doesn't stay.

When the rains didn't come again, the first plants to die were the grasses. Then the thorn brittled and the cactus grayed. In December, on the eve of Saint Lucy's Day, they set out six fragments of salt to divine for drought, and in the morning they counted how many had melted away and how many remained.

Finally, when the earth grew so hot that any rain would only steam back into the sky, they began to get ready. They called it the retreat, as if to settle the backlands was a foolish and unnatural thing in the first place. Most had seen drought before and knew too well the rituals of flight and uncertain return. In the dry fields, they clanged spades against the stone and combed the earth for fragments of manioc. They made calculations, checking their stores of salted meat and the levels of their wells.

As the days passed, they watched the sky, pinning their hopes on distant clouds that vanished suddenly as if bewitched. They broke fragments of dirt from the ground, caressed and crumbled them between their fingers, rolled the warm silt along the dry calluses of their thumbs, tasted it, talked to it. Coaxed, apologized, pleaded. Once a newspaperman from the coast came and wrote: The sharecroppers know the texture of the land better than they know their own faces. When the story was read aloud in the drought camps, an old man laughed, Of course! I was born there, I'm too poor for a looking glass, and when was there ever enough water for a still pool?

At dusk, they sat outside their homes and listened to the dry creaking of the thorn. They counted the days since they had last seen the orange armadillos, the hawk that nested in the buckthorn, the night mice that made skittering pilgrimages across the bare yard. They drew thick mud from the wells, pressed and twisted it in handkerchiefs, sucked it or threw it to the goats. The goats ate the greenest plants first: the jujubes, then the delicate pinnae of the mimosas, then the palm cactus, crushing the spines with their leathery tongues. When they had stripped the lowest branches clear, the animals stood on their hind legs and walked about like they were men. Flocks of birds blackened the sky, fleeing for the coast.

In town, they met at night and talked about when they would leave. The first to go were usually those who had seen drought before, who knew the horror of retreating at the last hour, with the last-goats and the last-flour and the last-hardtack burning in their mouths. Others wanted to go but waited, remembering the long march, the hunger, the drought camps and the cholera, the barren trails where they buried children with their eyes open so they wouldn't get lost on the way to heaven.

Others held out angrily, said, This is mine, and stamped their feet on the packed earth. They were the last to leave and the first to return. They were also the most likely to survive, as if they had the gift of estivation: drying up, slowing, sleeping for days, rising only to take little sips of what they could steal from the wells. Like the resurrection plants, with stems like rope and black-burnt leaves, blooming again at the first sign of rain.

They watched the sky and pinned their hopes on wisps of clouds stretching languidly across the blue. They shuttered windows and covered the wells. They watched neighbors leave and listened to rumors of where the government had set up way stations, and where there was disease. They killed the bone-thin zebu cows and then the goats, the animals arching weakly away from the dull blades of the knives. The meat of these last-goats was stringy and dry; in silty water, the women made stews from the guts and broth from the hoofs and tendons. They left the healthiest ones for the long march. In the hills, they searched for drinking-trees, held their bird-pecked fruit, ate their withered leaves and chewed their tubers until the sweet alkaline juice numbed their mouths. Slowly, the great trees began to die, their roots torn up, their leaves scratching at the dust as the wind swirled them away.

They watched the sky and pinned their hopes on the empty blue of it. Hadn't they heard stories of rain falling from cloudless skies, last-minute interventions by Saint Joseph or Saint Barbara? What of thorn ghosts who could stream tassels of water from the bean trees or open fountains from the cracks in the empty riverbeds? They began to leave candles at the crossroads and sprinkle cane wine on the lips of their patron saints. They worshipped in tiny chapels filled with carved wooden feet and heads left long ago to pay for wishes granted. While they waited for answers, they rolled their earthen bowls into blankets and tied them with twine. They piled these along with their children onto carts and backs of donkeys with weak knees and dry mouths. The poorer ones carried their blankets on their backs and their children in their arms. Half-empty gourds of water sloshed about their necks.

They watched the sky and finally cursed it, cursed the clouds and the absence of the clouds, the laziness of the clouds, the immoderation of the clouds that refused to leave the coast with its plump women and rich black soil. They rolled their icons of Saint Joseph into the blankets alongside the bowls. They recited invocations and slipped the scripts into twig-thin scapulars around their necks. They chewed their last meals slowly, waiting for each dry lump of manioc to dissolve as if it were the viaticum.

They spent their final nights at home. These were restless nights, and every one of them dreamed of the dust storms. This, they said, meant it was time to go, when the dreams turned dry and the clouds stayed away even in the night. They woke the children before dawn and set out while it was still cool. They calculated how far it was to the coast and how much water remained.

When they spoke of those hours, they said, We passed hunger. As if it were a place, an outpost on a lonely road. Other times, they said, Hunger passed through here. 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.



Isabel was three when she left and four when she came home, and so her memory was only a child's memory, made of smells and light and the uneven surface of the road. What she remembered was this: the hot taste of the charqui her aunt pushed into her cheek with a dirty thumb when she cried; the difference in the warmth of her mother's body and the radiating heat of the ground; her father's hands, pink-burned and black with the grease of the engine.

She remembered the sky, too, and how she hated it with a child's hate. Her father's hands were pink-burned because the engine seized constantly and the men were too anxious to let the radiator cool. They had been lucky to find a ride on a flatbed and wouldn't be as lucky on the journey home.

What she remembered of the drought camps was: the dark shade of a government tent, the chlorinated smell of the water, novenas of soft sad songs, the sting of vaccination needles, a yellow dog that came and nosed her hammock until someone kicked it away.

She couldn't recall the trip home and wondered if it was because she was sick or too tired. They had purchased a spavined horse and a dray from a family that decided to stay on the coast. They rode until a wheel split east of Blackwater. Since there were no nails, they unlatched the horse and loaded it with their bags. The path was filled with families returning to the backlands. Later, she would imagine the camps strung out on the long roads like seeds on a rosary string, but she didn't know if this memory was her own or from someone who held her.

For the next three years in Saint Michael, the rains came, the white forest blossomed in patches of olive green and light maroon. Isabel grew up playing with her brother Isaias and with her cousins. When she was older, it was easy to remember herself as one of the tiny girls with thin legs and swollen bellies. Her aunt once teased, Like little wild animals. She had no birth certificate, and no vaccination card despite the needles she endured in the camps. She was five when she first stood before a mirror, advancing suspiciously toward the new child with dirt-bannered cheeks and translucent lashes. Until she was baptized by a traveling priest, there was no document to say she was alive. On that day, she fought the soft hand that tried to steady her and brushed tears and well water from her eyes with the heel of her palm. The cursive loops of her name were inscribed in the same church ledger that cradled the name of her mother.

Growing up, she played all day in the dusty plaza before the whitewashed houses and the church. There was an empty fountain built during optimistic times, and a statue that had long lost all its features to the wind and dust storms. There was no running water in Saint Michael. Some said the statue was the governor, and others said it was a great bandit. The old men said that it had been salvaged from the road to the coast. At Carnival, it wore a hat.

When she was old enough, she attended a one-room schoolhouse at the edge of town. There were twenty or forty children, depending on the season. In the evenings, she walked home alone, or her brother went to fetch her.

They lived in a small house on the plaza. Four hammocks hung in one of the rooms. In the second was a worn sofa, where a visitor slept if there wasn't space to string another hammock. The walls stopped short of the underbelly of the roof. Flower-print sheets hung in the doorways. Spots of light twinkled in the chinks between the roof tiles and speckled her arms. There was a little wooden table with an altar for the Virgin and a half-dozen photos perched at uneven intervals on the walls. Above the couch someone had written, in charcoal, ROBERT S. + MARIA. It was surrounded by a heart, and had been there for as long as she could remember. She didn't know who they were. Outside, the door was chalk-marked "7" by a census taker. Then the "7" had been crossed out and rewritten "4."

On the other side of the sofa was a kitchen. There was a small raised hearth with an iron trivet and an earthen jar for water. They kept the provisions in a wooden cabinet to hide them from the flies. The table was surrounded by four stools, which her father had carpentered himself. If visitors came and there weren't enough plates, the children waited and watched until the meal was finished before taking their places at the table.

The back door opened into the thorn scrub, where a path zigzagged through the brush and didn't stop until the mountains. Drying clothes flapped on the branches. Goatskin chaps with hair on the outside hung on the wall, but they were brittle and hadn't been worn since a murrain killed most of the cattle. Outside in the center of the main square was a single telephone, installed by the family of the state phone company when one of its sons was running for governor. The token collector never came, so someone pried open the collection box. From then on, calls were free: the line engaged, the coin dropped out into the caller's hand. A single token sat atop the phone.

In the four hammocks slept Isabel, her brother, her mother and her father, in that order toward the door. They slept so close that they bumped one another when they moved.

Her mother tended the house and a small garden of manioc. A spring ran near Saint Michael, and when the earth wasn't so dry that it took all the water before it reached the surface, she tended a mango tree and a copse of banana trees as well. She had studied at a Marist school on the road to the coast and could read, but Isabel's father didn't know the letters. During the season, he cut sugarcane in the fields that grew along the distant stretches of the spring. Isabel would remember him from this time as a quiet unshaven man who rose long before dawn to eat cornmeal and leftover scraps of salted beef, refried until the strands of gristle curled up like pieces of thread.

Watching him, she learned that the natural state of a person is silence, that speaking only stirs up problems where there weren't problems before.

Her father had sunburned skin and pale green eyes. Her mother's skin was dark, and when she wore her oldest skirts, Isabel could lose her on the road at night.

When it wasn't cane season, her father found work with the construction companies, grading roads or laying pipe, at times going as far as the coast for projects in the state capital. In the cluster of houses about the square also lived her mother's mother and father, her mother's sister, the children of her mother's sister, her grandmother's sister and her children and grandchildren, and dozens of other cousins by blood and by marriage.

On the thresholds of the houses they tossed clay marbles and played jacks with goat knuckles, serrying them in little legions. When they grew tired of the knuckles, they played with the shadows of the knuckles, crouching creatures that unfurled themselves as the sun went down. At dusk, they abandoned them and swarmed the square like a wasps' nest disturbed.


From the Hardcover edition.
Daniel Mason|Author Q&A

About Daniel Mason

Daniel Mason - A Far Country
Daniel Mason was born and raised in Northern California. He studied Biology at Harvard, and Medicine at the University of California, in San Francisco. His first novel, The Piano Tuner, published in 2002, was a national bestseller and has since been published in 27 countries. Daniel has also published a short story in Harper's, on the life of the artist Arthur Bispo de Rosario. His new novel, A Far Country, was published by Knopf in March, 2007. Currently, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he is at work on his third book.

Author Q&A

Q: How did you come to write A FAR COUNTRY? You once said that The Piano Tuner began for you with just a mental image of a piano in the jungle. Was there any such image behind A FAR COUNTRY?
A:
This book, perhaps like many other books, came about accidentally. Around the time The Piano Tuner was published, I was interested in the Portuguese explorer Pedro Cabral, and wanted to write about an event that took place on his ship off the coast of South America. While I was in Brazil researching the story of Cabral’s voyage, I was struck by that country’s recent history of internal migration. Everywhere, I was meeting people who had fled the droughts and land struggles of the arid northeast to move to the cities. I had always been fascinated by stories of migration in the US, not only the current migration across the southern border, but internal migration as well, whether to the industrial cities of the northeast or the WWII-era displacement of entire towns from the Deep South to the shipyards here in the Bay Area. In Bangkok, where I worked for a year, much of the city relies on the labor of migrants from Burma and the Khorat Plateau. Today it is almost impossible not to read about the growth of urban slums all over the world. The rapidity of these migrations are having a impact far beyond demographics; I think that the abrupt shift between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ creates much of the tension and anger we see in so many societies.

I was fascinated by the psychological effects of such dislocation, what happens when someone leaves a traditional rural lifestyle for an urban one: what becomes of their skills of survival, what becomes of their language, what becomes of concepts as elemental as their sense of time? How do they cope with the isolation that occurs when the world you know has been taken away from you?

Q: Your main character, Isabel, is a fourteen-year-old girl. Why did you choose a character that is so different from you? Was it a challenge for you to capture her voice?
A:
It is hard to answer why I chose her. I’ve heard other writers say that you don’t chose a character, a character chooses you. Something always felt wrong whenever I tried to tell the story from another perspective.

In retrospect, I think I was drawn to write about someone her age because it is an age of such change. Like any adolescent, she is trying to learn who she is; but her internal confusion is paralleled by the breakdown of her world. So when she has to leave her village, in many ways she leaves behind her childhood as well. I also liked the ambiguity of adolescence: at fourteen, she is still a child but increasingly faced with the responsibilities of an adult. This confusion, and these responsibilities, meant there was a lot to explore as a writer.

The hardest part about writing from her perspective was not that she is young and a girl, but that she possesses a kind of intelligence that is very hard to put to words, an intelligence similar to what I imagine Keats meant when he wrote about Negative Capability: an ability to accept uncertainty, to understand those philosophical truths that come through intuition rather than explication. She has that beautiful and strange intuition of a child, a visceral sense of the world which at times seems like a second sight. And yet she can barely read, she has seen the sea only once, she knows very little of the world beyond her home. This meant that I had to be extremely restrained in what I could have her do and think. This was by far the most difficult part of the book: to treat this character on her own terms; to resist my own temptation to explain her actions; to give agency to someone completely swept up by events out of her control; to create that kind of quiet dignity that we often overlook; to show the internal strength of someone who has been dispossessed of almost everything; to portray a child who does not naturally express herself through language, but through her actions and endurance. There is a great difference between silent and silenced. And yet as a writer, my only tool is my language. So it was a constant challenge to express her internal world as richly as possible, without betraying her own vision.

Q: Like The Piano Tuner, A FAR COUNTRY contains vivid physical detail, and yet the settings are extremely different. How was it to write about such different landscapes? Why did you decide to set this book in such an arid, harsh place?
A:
I have always been drawn to arid places, not only for their particular beauty, but also for the people who cling so stubbornly to difficult land. I did not want to present Isabel’s home as an idyll. Hers is not a peaceful, easy existence destroyed by modernity. It is a violent, grueling existence complicated by modernity. Her life is materially better once she gets to the city: she no longer starves, she is no longer forced to follow the rains. So why this deep tie to the land? There is a wonderful line from St Exupery: “I shall never be able to express clearly whence comes this pleasure men take from aridity, but always and everywhere I have seen men attach themselves more stubbornly to barren lands than to any other.”

I hope this setting is reflected in the language of the book. The sentences are shorter, sparer. Isabel’s world is physical, experienced through sight and touch and smell, but rarely language. There is much more of an emphasis on what is there, as opposed to The Piano Tuner, where more space is given to how Edgar, the main character, perceives what is there. We are all products of the physical world around us, but I feel this is particularly true for Isabel. There are no books for her to escape into. Even the stories she grows up listening to have an immediacy: stories of the plants and animals of the place she lives in. So the details of the setting— the feel of the soil, the sharpness of the cane leaves, the real and mythological creatures who inhabit the thorn— are essential to understanding her, and what will happen to her when she is torn away from her home.

Q: You never name the actual location of the story, leaving the reader to imagine exactly what country they might be in. Why did you decide to leave this particular detail out?
A:
I guess there are a number of answers to this question. Much of the story is based on events that are happening throughout the world; every day we read more about the widespread environmental destruction and violence, as well as the rumor of a better life, that is driving people to the cities. Initially, I was struck by particular events which happened in Brazil: namely, a series of massive droughts, which at times have led to a near evacuation of vast areas of the northeastern interior, and the subsequent migration of millions of people to cities in the south. At the same time, I did not want to write a novel of Brazil, nor of the current migrations within Mexico, which also served as a model. I had originally thought to name the location, to set it in São Paulo or Mexico City, but while writing, I found that the details of a real place had a tendency to overwhelm the narrative, which I wanted to keep as stark as possible, telling only what was necessary. I wanted to explore the psychological world of someone who is completely dispossessed, to try to tell the story on their own terms. And dispossession in this case meant not only dispossession of land, but dispossession of knowledge and history. To name a location meant to tap a particular place, with its own history and culture. It would have liberated the reader from Isabel’s powerlessness; the reader could have escaped into so many rich associations that come with a real place and history. I didn’t want this. I wanted to maintain the claustrophobia that Isabel feels, swept up in events beyond her control. If she can barely read, if she does not know what is happening outside her own world, I didn’t want us to know, either. So I tried to stay within her reality: focusing on the details of her home, the plants and animals, the smells, with only the faint shadows of the wealth and history of the modern world. When we do glimpse history, we do so only as she does, from its edges.

Q: Earlier you mentioned Isabel’s experience of language. At several moments in the book, she is frustrated by the limits of her words. Why was this important for a character who experiences the world so physically and speaks so little?
A:
Isabel is not the only character facing the limits of her words. Around her, in the backlands and the slums, much of the anger comes from a sense of impotence, of voicelessness. At a number of points in the book, Isabel feels the need for words to describe the changing terror of her situation. She cannot write to Isaias what she feels in his absence. She does not understand the slang of the city. Unable to put words to the emptiness she feels, she searches for some explanation. Her language, the language which once served her, has become increasingly worthless.

Writing, I wondered if the inability to describe alienation somehow worsens that sense of alienation. One of the first times Isabel thinks about the loss of her old world is her reflection on the backlands words which are so useless in the city. What, she wonders, can thorn mean to someone who has not held it, not walked through it, not torn themselves on it? Isabel’s thoughts begin with a meditation on language. If she cannot explain what is happening to her, how can she understand it, let alone control it? What becomes of her when the words she once used are gone?

Q: A FAR COUNTRY is a novel very much about families and the bonds between a brother and sister. What made you decide to tell this story through the lens of that brother/sister relationship?
A:
I was interested in the deep, almost ineffable connection that can exist between any two people. This is not confined to family, of course. When we fall in love, we so often say that it feels as if we have known the person for a long time. But family is usually where we first experience that sense of recognition, that profound sense of connection. Growing up together in such a remote place, the link between Isabel and Isaias is extremely strong, almost crossing over into the supernatural. Hence the early scene in the canefields, which seems like a miracle, the kind a saint might perform. I don’t know if this is a miracle or not. The real miracle, it seems to me, is the very real, yet inexplicable bond between two people.

There is something special in a brother-sister relationship, as opposed to that of a child and a parent. A brother and sister face the world in the same generation. Because they are closer in age, their relationship changes dramatically as they grow up. When Isabel is little, she worships her brother, “with the gaze she recognized in the old women before the statues of the saints.” By the end of the story (without wishing to give anything away) she is forced to realize who he is, not who she wants him to be.

Finally, one aspect of their relationship that interested me was how little is said sometimes. There is something about traveling alongside someone, about the profound experience of shared adventure, that is distinct from romantic or parental love. When Isabel’s world is destroyed, Isaias is the only one who knows what it was like. This is part of why his vanishing is so painful. She fears she has lost not just a brother, but the only person who really knew where she came from. Only in each other’s minds live the people they used to be.

Q: It's interesting that in reading A FAR COUNTRY one gets the sense it is a story that could have taken place a hundred years ago or could be happening right now. Were you out to explore the idea of a certain timeless human experience?
A:
I would love it if a reader comes away with that impression. The experience I wanted to explore was not just the timeless phenomenon of migration and physical displacement, but the fundamental shift that occurs when a worldview no longer makes sense. Isabel comes from a society in which certain events that to us are supernatural are commonplace to her. She sees ghosts in the thornscrub. When her family prays to Saint Michael, she imagines him quite literally, coming down “smelling of dust and feathers” to protect her village from landowner’s henchmen. She never questions her second sight or intuition, because it makes sense in the world from which she has come.

I remember meeting a man in the backlands who had a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of plants. It was extraordinary; I was traveling with a friend who is a botanist at the University of São Paulo, and not even our field guides could compete with the knowledge of this man (whose name was Milton, which is beautiful when one considers this is a story of being cast into a foreign world). But he had come back to the backlands after twenty years of construction work on the periphery of São Paulo. How did he make sense of that new world, now empty of the thousands of plants he once knew? How do you conceive of your own death, if for generations your family came and left this world on the same patch of land, are buried in the same graves, but you have been forced to leave? Would he wonder, if, in the place we go after we die, if he would have been able to find them? Would he fear being forced to wander alone forever, cut off from his line? There are countless questions like this, none of which I have an answer to, but it is a wonderful thought to explore through fiction.

There is another aspect to this timelessness which I think is important. The story begins very deliberately outside of specific time, before coalescing around Isabel’s life. I wanted this to reflect both the development of memory as well as how one imagines ones own family history. For it is the way our memories of childhood, once vague and dreamlike, condense around our explicit memories: the way we “appear” twice, so to speak, once physically, and again in our memory of ourselves. This is also true for our family lines. For all of us there is a point at which, going back in time, one’s family history disappears. Isabel’s friend Josiane asks this, ‘Do you think you just appeared out of nowhere, grew up out of the ground? You think you are made of dust?’ But Isabel doesn’t have an answer, just as if you asked a child how they came into the world, they wouldn’t know.

Q: Still, in some ways it’s very contemporary. Reading this, it is hard not to think of the millions of people all over the world who have been forced by circumstance to move from rural to urban settings in search of a way to survive. Poverty and migration are really humanized in this book and I wonder if part of your intention was to write a story that says something about this experience?
A:
My interest was to explore a character who formed her understanding of the world in a rural village, isolated from modernity. By virtue of our times, this means poverty. I did not set out to write a novel about poverty; I set out to write about isolation. It was her psychological or spiritual world that fascinated me; her poverty was a consequence of this. She isn’t even aware that she is poor until she confronts the world around her.

Poverty is very difficult to write about. I wanted to portray it accurately without anesthetizing its attendant violence on one hand, nor romanticizing it on the other. The brutal realities of the lives of most people in the world are probably more shocking than fiction, and thus better treated by nonfiction. But poverty also forces people into extraordinary situations which demand a lot from the human soul. This seems to me to be fiction’s territory.

Q:A FAR COUNTRY, like The Piano Tuner, chronicles a journey, fraught with peril, away from home: an adventure that finds the main character forced to reinvent himself/herself in a new landscape. What draws you to this structure which in many ways is reminiscent of the classic stories of myth and fables with their stories about quests?
A:
I don’t know. When I dream, my dreams usually are of someone traveling alone through a vast place. When I imagine death, I imagine it as an empty place, like a desert or a sea. I grew up in the American West, and I am most happy when I am moving through land with lots of space and sky. Maybe that is why I write stories like this. Even my short stories tend to be about lone people.

Q: The Piano Tuner has been adapted as an Opera and a play and is now also in pre-production as a film. What is it like for you to see your work adapted for the stage?
A:
It’s wonderful to watch a work get its own life. Sometimes, strange as this may seem, it doesn’t even feel to me as if I wrote The Piano Tuner anymore. It seems like it came from a different person, who I knew once, but has gone away. It is familiar, but only in the way that a book you’ve read many times is familiar. It is great to see other artists come up with their own interpretations. Film is such a different medium, with entirely new potentials. And the Opera was fascinating. The composer, Nigel Osborne, was able to investigate questions of music in ways that my book could not— for example dissecting the component sounds of Burmese instruments, applying Burmese musical scales to classic Western patterns of counterpoint—in other words, searching for fundamental, universal similarities between disparate musical traditions. I learned so much from watching it.

Q: You began writing while in medical school, and I understand that A FAR COUNTRY was begun while you were still in school. I was wondering how that experience affected your writing. Are you working now as a doctor?
A:
I graduated in 2004, but I have not yet done my residency. Now I am working on a new book, and I don’t know yet what I will do when I am done. But medicine affected my writing in many ways. It allowed me to meet people whose paths I probably wouldn’t have crossed. Isabel is in some ways based on a patient who I saw as a third year student, a girl who had come through hell to get to the United States, yet one of the most serene, dignified people I’ve ever met. I had already begun the book then. But this girl, in the words of Osman Lins (and the epigraph of my book) had that nearly inexplicable quality “we see in images of saints, the coarsest ones.” In a way, this book is an attempt to explain what that means.

Medicine also introduces one to the body in all its intimacies and all its failings. I think it is very difficult to write about disease, to know what goes wrong and what it feels like. Certain scenes in A FAR COUNTRY, particularly the horrible details of what happens to someone who is starving, come from medicine. I wanted to treat hunger not as something abstract or political, but something physically real.

Finally, there is a specificity of language in medicine which I admire very much. There is the hope that when one doctor communicates to the other, he or she can convey a patient’s condition so perfectly that the other doctor may not even need to go into the room. Of course this isn’t really possible, but as a writer, I find that faith in language very beautiful. It is like the centuries-old philosophical search for the perfect language, a language which all thought can be communicated without flaw, so that the listener can form a perfect image of the speakers words. Of course medicine cannot do this. But it tries, and this is inspiration enough. At the beginning of every discussion of a patient, there is a single sentence where one tries to convey the essence of a patient, and what has gone wrong. That is the kind of sentence I want to write one day.

Q: Your first novel The Piano Tuner was an international bestseller, translated into almost thirty languages. How did that impact your life and work?
A:
I don’t think it has changed much. Every once and a while I meet someone who has read my book, but not so often. My days are different now that I am not in school any more. I have more time. It is very strange to spend so much time in an imaginary world.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Mesmerizing. . . . Staggeringly beautiful . . . [Mason] may well be the next great novelist of our time.” —The Boston Globe“Penetrating. . . . Mason’s power as a storyteller is to plunge the reader into a world so perfectly detailed that we don’t just see it through the protagonist’s eyes. All of our senses are engaged.” —San Francisco ChronicleA Far Country is a book about . . . people who live as subsistence farmers or flee their land to scrabble for a living in the smog-choked megacities of the south. . . . But for a bit of historical luck, its ‘far country’ might be Britain, America or anywhere else.”—The New York Times Book Review“With both boldness and circumspection. . . . Mason writes in stripped-down prose that strives toward a sort of meditative lucidity.” —Chicago Tribune

Awards

FINALIST 2008 James Tait Black Memorial Prize
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Mesmerizing. . . . Staggeringly beautiful. . . . [Mason] may well be the next great novelist of our time.” —The Boston Globe

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to stimulate your group's discussion of Daniel Mason's A Far Country, a stunning new novel about a young girl's journey through a vast, unnamed country in search of her brother.

About the Guide

In the impoverished backlands of an unnamed country, an unusual child is born into the family of a cane cutter. Isabel is born with an “open” body—the ability to see the future at times, to sense spirits others cannot see, to calm children. Her parents decide to have her body “closed,” because her gift is often accompanied with illness and suffering. All through her childhood Isabel's closest companion is her older brother, Isaias, but when war and political violence make village life unbearable, Isaias leaves for the city in the hopes of finding work as a musician. When drought strikes, Isabel's parents send her to the city as well, but once she arrives she discovers that Isaias has disappeared. Weeks and then months pass, until one day, armed only with her unshakable hope, she descends into the chaos of the city to find him. What follows is a haunting meditation on endurance, survival, and whether faith can sustain us when hope is all but lost.

About the Author

Daniel Mason was born and raised in Northern California. He studied Biology at Harvard, and Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. His first novel, The Piano Tuner, published in 2002, was a national bestseller and has since been published in 27 countries. Daniel has also published a short story in Harper's, on the life of the artist Arthur Bispo do Rosario. Currently, he lives in San Francisco, where he is at work on his third book.

Discussion Guides

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 their 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. 144]. 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?

Suggested Readings

Monica Ali, Brick Lane; Andrea Barrett, Servants of the Map; Euclides da Cunha, Rebellion in the Backlands; William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying; Bessie Head, When Rain Clouds Gather; P. D. James, Children of Men; Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera; George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London; José Saramago, Blindness; John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath; Émile Zola, Germinal.

  • A Far Country by Daniel Mason
  • March 18, 2008
  • Fiction - Literary; Fiction
  • Vintage
  • $13.95
  • 9781400030392

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