Review

A Far Country

by Daniel Mason

Daniel Mason's haunting THE PIANO TUNER left an indelible
imprint on my memory, which helped to launch a never-to-be
forgotten visit to Southeast Asia in 2004. Such can be the power of
a gifted writer --- that the potency of his words can open doors
and windows of the mind to seek further information on the subject,
learn more about the circumstances in the book, or even to book
passage to lands far away. So it was with great hopes when Mason's
newest, A FAR COUNTRY, became available, and I grabbed it without
hesitation.

Isabel is the 14-year-old daughter of a farm laborer and his wife,
living next to a sugar cane plantation in an unnamed equatorial
America country, quite likely Brazil. Her older brother Isaias is a
talented violinist who chafes at the idea of being forever tied to
seasonal work cutting cane or loading river barges, the occupation
of villagers for generations. Drought and the increasing attacks by
raiders as poverty spreads among the displaced peasants drive Isais
to join the growing Diaspora of young people who drift hopefully
toward the city in the south. On his infrequent returns home, he
talks glowingly of gaining fame as a musician, always going back to
the city and sending small amounts of money to help out his
impoverished family. His visits stop, replaced by occasional phone
calls, and then he simply vanishes.    

Isabel yearns for her brother, and when she is needed to babysit
for a few weeks for her cousin in the same city that has swallowed
Isaias, she is eager to follow him. With little more than a few
dollars and a meager lunch, she embarks on a journey via "parrot
perch" --- riding in an open flatbed truck on a four-day journey to
the South. She arrives, after much travail, in The Settlements. She
has directions to her cousin's apartment in a neighborhood called
Eden, a name that turns out to be a cruel joke. Eden is nothing
more than an endless sprawl of tin-roofed shanties, baking in the
tropical heat, indistinguishable from hundreds of other
neighborhoods housing millions of displaced camposinos in pursuit
of work and shelter. When she finally locates the apartment, she is
distraught to find that Isaias, whom she expected to be there to
greet her, has not been seen for weeks. 

And so begins Isabel's search through the teeming city for her
brother, with baby Hugo, her cousin's son, on her hip. Isabel was
born with a second sight, an ability that frightened her parents to
the degree that they had her exorcized by a holy woman. But she
still feels the uncanny, compelling presence of her brother, which
drives her to find him. She enters the world of people looking for
"the disappeared" --- the tens of thousands who come to the city
and are never heard from again. Yet she feels that he is close at
hand, watching over her, and cannot abandon her quest.

A FAR COUNTRY is a bittersweet journey of the heart; a story of
family love yearning for security and survival. Mason's brilliant
lyrical prose carries the reader along in a mixture of fantasy and
reality. While the story verges on magical realism, it is not in
the mystical realm of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Isabel Allende. Yet
the surreal location and Isabel's ability to find lost objects and
people whom she loves lend itself to the genre.

While A FAR COUNTRY doesn't quite achieve the magic and panoramic
exotica of Mason's first triumph, it still offers the lyrical prose
and powerful sense of place, which is quite enough if armchair
travel to other places through a good book is your
goal.  

Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 21, 2011

A Far Country
by Daniel Mason

  • Publication Date: March 6, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0375414665
  • ISBN-13: 9780375414664