Modern Fiction Daniel Mason A Far Country

ISBN 13 : 9780375414664

A Far Country

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9780375414664: A Far Country

Book by Mason Daniel

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Extrait :

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 ...

Revue de presse :

“Powerful . . . Haunting . . . The story revolves around Isabel, a charmingly melancholy girl who lives with her extended family in Saint Michael. . . . [She] has a brother, Isaias, who is seven years her senior. . . . Isabel adores him, and she has an uncanny ability of always finding him, no matter where he is. Then, drought and civil unrest descend upon them. . . . Isaias sneaks away one night to make his fortune as a street entertainer in the big city. Soon after, when food is gone, Isabel follows. . . . When Isabel arrives, Isaias is nowhere to be found. Isabel waits for him, day after day. Her despair grows palpable. . . . The ‘far country’ [of the title] is redolent of what C. S. Lewis in The Pilgrim’s Promise called Sehnsucht, the ‘inconsolable longing’ in the human heart for ‘we know not what’. . . . I found that Isabel’s story was my own, and her quest carried me through to the very end. Indeed, Mason has erased time and location details in the book so that it can be read as everyperson’s story, with the timeless beauty of a slow, winding parable. He’s a deft weaver of words. . . . I’m already looking forward to his third novel.” –Elissa Elliott, Christianity Today
“Mason’s skill is distinct from the first page. His descriptive control can be astonishing, almost inebriating the reader . . . It’s difficult not to be carried along by the mesmerizing panorama to which he delivers us. . . . Though the focus is largely on the dichotomy between backlands and modern cities, and the cost of progress and technology on rural communities, in many ways the novel’s most successful and surprising current is its restrained exploration of women. . . . Yet it’s Isaias and Isabel’s delicate, convincing and mutual sibling relationship that forms the nucleus of the story.”–Christine Thomas, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A Far Country is a book about the world’s poor, the several billion people who live as subsistence farmers or flee their land to scrabble for a living in the smog-choked megacities of the south. Its power lies in making the reader feel that, but for a bit of historical luck, its ‘far country’ might be anywhere . . . The protagonist, Isabel, and her brother Isaias live in a tiny hamlet near a dry river [where they] have been brought to the edge of starvation by repeated drought. . . . In this bleak environment, Isabel’s family is her refuge. In particular, she shares a supernatural bond with Isaias, whom she can locate, even blindfolded, in the maze of the cane fields. . . . The book turns on Isaias’ decision to flee for ‘the city,’ where he hopes to find work as a musician. With Isaias gone, Isabel slowly withers, until at last her family sends her to look for him. . . . The testing of filial affection against the cruelty of the industrializing economy have been myths of the modern age at least since Dickens. Mason’s version has a more recent ancestor: Black Orpheus, the 1959 bossa nova film that sets the Orpheus myth in the favelas above Rio de Janeiro. . . . Ultimately, the debt A Far Country owes to Black Orpheus only testifies to the enduring power of its narrative in third-world life. The fear that animates Isabel’s quest is the terror not of poverty but of being lost: stripped away from one’s village, one’s family, from anything one might call home. Her search for her brother is a struggle to anchor herself against the modern world’s chaos. In this case, however, it is Eurydice who is seeking her lost musician, not the other way around.” –Matt Steinglass, The New York Times Book Review
“Mason’s second novel has echoes of his ardent début, The Piano Tuner: Once more, a shy protagonist is thrust out of the familiar, on a quest for an elusive figure in a terrifying jungle. Here the sultry atmosphere has been replaced by the dusty despair of an anonymous Third World nation, and the jungle is a teeming, restive city, where the fourteen-year-old heroine, a migrant from a drought-stricken village, searches for her missing brother. Mason’s sympathy for the powerless runs deep . . . [ A Far Country] powerfully evokes the claustrophobic isolation of its heroine.” – The New Yorker
A Far Country [is] about a 14-year-old girl named Isabel, who takes a long, strange journey across a vast, unnamed country in search of her brother, a novel filled with strong, emotional images. . . . Isabel emerges as a terribly convincing, empathetic character. Mason writes the story in a way that is open.”–Dennis Lythgoe, Desert Morning News
“A tour de force of imaginative empathy . . . An inspiring story of sibling love . . . Despite the strikingly visual evocation of place . . . the [‘far country’ of the title] also indicates a country of the mind, Isabel’s. Isabel is a 14-year-old who, from the time she was little, was different, known for intuiting things that no one else could understand–such as how to find her way through the pathless forest of tall canes to where her adored brother Isaias would be working. . . . Another extraordinary novel from Mason’s pen, powerful and moving because it shows that what one individual can do is more important than the odds she is up against, shared though they are by millions like her in many far countries.”
–Judith Armstrong, The Sydney Morning Herald
“A staggeringly beautiful meditation on poverty, migration, and class that stands as a worthy successor to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath . . . A young girl named Isabel grows up in a small village at the edge of a cane plantation. When drought comes, she is forced to move to the big city, following her beloved older brother, whom she spends the book searching for. There are intimations that Isabel is gifted with the ability of “seeing farther,” a preternatural sensitivity to the suffering of others that acts much like clairvoyance. But Mason doesn’t lean on this device . . . Instead, he chooses to relate her story using a strain of realism whose magic resides in its sensual precision and empathy. . . . Mason is writing here about the dislocation of an entire class of human beings, who are suddenly and brutally forced to convert from an agrarian lifestyle ruled by the gods of weather to an urban one ruled by corporations and profit. . . . Shattering . . . A mesmerizing novel, one that I could not put down or stop thinking about. In a culture littered with young writers who have made their name on clever wordplay and canny marketing, Mason represents the exception. He may well be the next great novelist of our time. He is interested in only the most brutal truths, and he delivers them with a depth of feeling that will leave you trembling.” –Steve Almond, The Boston Globe

“Impressive and gratifying . . . A Far Country, Daniel Mason’s long-awaited second novel, is set in an unnamed part of South America, where 14-year-old Isabel leaves her drought-stricken rural home for an urban slum. She arrives in ‘the settlements’, expecting to be reunited with her much-loved older brother, Isaias, only to find that he has disappeared . . . Haunted by Isaias’s absence, she becomes obsessed with finding him. Isabel has formed her understanding of the world in a place where the land and the rain shape and influence people’s lives. Living in the shanties, she has lost everything she knows . . . Her reality is restricted to her day-to-day experiences. Everything is understood viscerally: by sight, touch, smell and her intuition. In attempting to express this, Mason sets himself a tough challenge. He pulls it off impressively, narrating the story within the limitations of Isabel’s own terms while at the same time managing to produce extremely vivid and evocative prose. The main concern of this novel, with its uncluttered plot and gratifying ending, is not to highlight the brutalities of the developing world; at first, Isabel doesn’t even realise she is living in poverty. Instead, Mason explores the ways in which modernity can complicate traditional rural lives and create isolation.
–Shiona Tregaskis, The Guardian (UK)

“Mason reveals the lives of the poor in a Third World country with both boldness and circumspection.  A Far Country takes place somewhere in South or Central America, but Mason never tells us this. He doesn’t wish his story to be grounded in local identity, but in a more widespread, anonymous, state–that of the poverty that exists on every continent. The novel’s strength lies in its spareness. Mason writes in stripped-down prose that strives toward a sort of meditative lucidity and seems to imitate Isabel’s quietness and the arid land from which she sprang. Often, it is a perspective clarified by hunger . . . It’s an interesting  choice, and an astute one. It allows him to experience Isabel’s world as a place more spiritual than actual, an environment reduced to its elements . . .  In her single-mind[ed] search for Isaias, Isabel maintains her dignity, which is, in the end, its own sort of victory, and which the book itself shares . . . A beautifully contained narrative that illuminates a singular life.”–Danielle Chapman, The Chicago Tribune
“If it’s an allegory of endurance you seek, or a heartbreaking, poetic fable . . . look no further. Mason’s far country has no name . . . Mason paints sparingly, with lyrical phrasing  . . .   a simple, occasionally magical story that lights up the themes of disruption and loss with the redeeming flicker of the human spirit. Fourteen-year-old Isabel is all too familiar with...

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