David Malouf’s novel, Harland’s Half Acre, features an Australian artist with surrealistic talent. Writing about Frank Harland, Malouf himself depicts his art and his settings with surrealistic talent, too. Again and again Malouf notes Harland’s skill at crafting a single representational line or his ability to turn color into meaning. He uncovers a third dimension.
“The page was his mind and contained everything that was in his mind and which waited there to be brought forth. Hidden beneath it was the world. He had only to let things emerge, to let his hand free them.”
Writing about Harland’s sketches, Malouf might be describing his own prose.
I want to quote more from this beautifully brilliant book because it is almost impossible for me to capture Malouf’s intensity. Here are more words portraying Harland’s budding vocation.
“He had a box of water-colours as well and in moments when he was free from work would try to catch in line, he loved that, and in thin wash, the long undulations of the land under a sky that was filled with happenings. They were so large—such lyrical, slow tumblings and transformings in ice-blue or in opening mushrooms of black all ablaze at the edge—that the earth seemed a sphere where nothing happened at all unless the slope of a hill was made active with running shadows or the stale surface of a lake, broken only by lily-pads, was touched at a distance by a storm that might have been blowing up below its hand-span of real depth out of aeons of mud.”
Oxymoronic images come together in ways that make perfect pictorial sense. And this is only the beginning. Harland can convey human emotions as well as landscapes, concrete actions and interactions in creative abstractions. Some of the most intense moments in this novel are replicated in Harland’s art. Something as complicated as a murder/suicide, for example, or as simple as a connective link between two domestics and the man who delivers the ice. So Harland’s Half Acre is more than a novel about artistry. It is also a novel about people, eccentric men, women, and children who tend to behave in odd and unpredictable ways.
Frank Harland is totally unconventional. His life style fluctuates between unsettled family situations, vagabond meanderings, and isolated moments of fixed habitation. Large portions of his story are told by Phil, initially a boy whose father introduces him to the fascinating artist and later an adult, the steady-handed lawyer who looks after Harland’s affairs. Phil, for the most part, is a reliable narrator, but he has his peculiarities, too. And some of his observations are suspect, especially when Phil is interpreting the motivations of people in love. He is blind to his own family’s foibles, as is Harland; yet he is understanding, as is Harland. Their family stories fluctuate back and forth in a contrapuntal rhythm that adds depth to Harland’s Half Acre.
Malouf’s novel isn’t easily forgotten. I keep coming back to the density of the prose, the way it echoes Harland’s masterpieces. Just as Harland is fluent in a number of different artistic mediums, so Malouf moves confidently from characterization to scene to artistic imagination to concrete action to nightmares and dreams. Readers looking for escape fiction will not enjoy this novel. Those who want their imaginations arrested and their intellects challenged will find Harland’s Half Acre intriguing, insightful, and well worth tackling. – Ann Ronald
Also available by David Malouf: Remembering Babylon; Ransom; An Imaginary Life; Fly Away Peter; Johnno; The Great World; Dream Stuff; The Conversation at Curlow Creek; A First Place; The Happy Life, The Search for Contentment in the Modern World; 12 Edmondstone Street; The Complete Stories; Every Move You Make; Typewriter Music; The Writing Life; On Experience; Made in England, Australia’s British Heritage; Antipodes; Earth Hour; Being There; Child’s play; Jane Eyre (with Michael Berkeley).