A Far Country
By Daniel Mason
Knopf, Hardcover, 9780375414664, 288pp.
Publication Date: March 6, 2007
List Price: $24.00*
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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.
Told 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.
A tour de force of great emotional and narrative power.
“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 the ravages of drought and the tormenting dreams of starvation. Subsistence is perilously difficult on the dry, rocky land her father farms . . . The closest bond that dreamy, possibly visionary Isabel knows is her compass-like connection to her brother. So when he leaves the stifling privations of village life to pursue his fantasy of a career in music in the city, Isabel loses a part of herself. . . . Imbued with restraint, A Far Country achieves a careful, understated, delicate alignment with its ethereal heroine on her quest to reconnect with her other half. [Mason] humanizes the sociological dimension with individual instances of connection and generosity, while simultaneously acknowledging how much is being lost in the shift from north to south. Isabel is special, an old spirit with rare sensitivity . . . Her perspective on the new world remains foreign and lends the harsh scenarios an element of transcendence. The conclusion to her search epitomizes this fusion of underclass experience and otherworldliness, in its tightly wound, almost mystical spiral of panic, comprehension and resolution. With echoes of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Mason’s novel holds fast to an optimistic view of human nature, of its irrepressible instinct for continuity–and capacity for grace–in response to inexorable pressure . . . There’s an affecting glimmer of magic to this parable which, while streaming mesmerizing images, seeks to extend a blessing over manmade catastrophe.”–Elsbeth Lindner, The Miami Herald
“A pitch-perfect novel.”
–William Henderson, In News Weekly
“Mason’s luminous prose shines on in his soul-searching new novel A Far Country . . . [and] his language sparkles.”
–Andrea Hoag, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“At this moment in history, [the city] is a world away from the backlands. The rich and the poor live on different planets. The human past is a far country and the future an unknown one. Such are the strands of meaning in Daniel Mason’s new novel A Far Country, set in an unnamed country ravaged by blind forces of development, with a corrupt military regime waging a campaign to drive away the “backlanders” to free up every bit of arable land and usable water for large-scale agriculture . . . The story follows a 14-year-old girl named Isabel, who joins the waves of displaced backlanders bound for the city, where her brother and a cousin have gone before her . . . . [A Far Country] holds fascination to the end.”
–Vernon Peterson, The Oregonian
“Mason has crafted a touching story of how a family bond can withstand challenges and great difficulties.”
–Don Kazak, Palo Alto Weekly
“Lyrical, observant . . . [A Far Country] is for people who love writing, people whose interest is as much in the way the story is told as in the story itself, in watching the way a gifted writer’s imagination works . . . The overtones in A Far Country are of Latin American writers like Gabriel Garcia Márquez [but] Mason creates a place that is many places, giving the novel the character of a fable. At the same time, he also deftly maintains an actuality–we feel we’re in a real place . . . Mason explores the book’s landscapes, rural and urban, with a fresh and unjaded eye . . . Keenly perceived, richly imagined and delicately felt.”
–Charles Matthews, San Jose Mercury News
“A tale of a magical, dirt-poor girl searching for her beloved brother. 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. Every taste, smell and sound is viscerally perceptible. When the sun beats down, we feel the sweat. When the character is in pain, we wince . . . Set in an unnamed country, A Far Country is a story of a girl named Isabel, from a drought-prone region deep in the northern interior . . . Her special powers of perception make her especially intriguing . . . The family’s situation deteriorates to the point where Isabel’s parents fear she will die if they do not do something, [so they] send her, at age 14, [to] a menacing city. Once [she arrives], the hard-luck life of the village now seems like the good old days . . . What keeps Isabel going is her obsession with finding her brother, who has disappeared . . . . Mason’s unflinching depiction of hunger and deprivation is reminiscent of the work of the great French writer Emile Zola, whose naturalistic portrayal of miners in his 19th century novel Germinal raised consciousness regarding the plight of exploited workers . . . . [A Far Country] reminds us that ‘the poor’ or ‘immigrants’ are not singular, solid concepts but collective nouns that refer to individuals, all with unique stories and struggles, painful pasts and uncertain futures, surrounded by or separated from loved ones, just trying to make it day by day, inch by inch . . . Penetrating . . . Vivid.”
–Regan McMahon, San Francisco Chronicle, cover
“A wonderful novel . . . Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner was a phenomenon [but] A Far Country should be a phenomenon in its own right . . . Mason has a remarkable imagination. He can capture the most intimate details of lives that are completely different from his own and place them convincingly in distant places and times . . . A Far Country is about a very young girl growing up in a remote village in the dry, impoverished backcountry of an unnamed country . . . Isabel is naïve and ignorant of the greater world, but not at all stupid. She understands her village and its rhythms extremely well, and she navigates unerringly in the sugar cane fields that support it in rainy years. She has an uncanny ability to find things. [Her] extra vision [also] serves her well as she navigates the big city. Does she find her brother? I won’t tell, but the ending is both surprising and satisfying. And the search is even more satisfying than the solution . . . Mason says he hopes to both practice medicine and write. If his clinical skills approach his writing skills, he’s guaranteed success in both fields . . . A Far Country takes a fulfilling journey.”
–Bill Campbell, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“The story behind The Piano Tuner, Daniel Mason’s debut novel, has become, itself, the stuff of fiction. Mason was just 26 when the highly acclaimed best seller was released, [and] wrote the book while attending medical school in San Francisco . . . Readers wondered whether the book–an exquisitely crafted historical drama–was a fluke. With the release of A Far Country, all doubts should vanish. Mason’s new novel doesn’t disappoint. [It is] a beautifully told, heart-wrenching tale. Like its predecessor, the novel is set in an exotic locale–presumably somewhere in South America, though Mason never says–and it brings to life complex central characters: Isabel, a 14-year-old girl; Isaias, her older brother; and the drought, a cruel lack of rain that plays a pivotal role in the narrative, prompting Isaias, and later Isabel, to go to ‘the city’ in a largely unsuccessful effort to earn money. Mason’s descriptions are his strength. Readers will feel the dry mouths of babies, see the dusty fields, hear the rumbling of hungry bellies. The still-young author’s use of language reflects the skill and maturity of a true natural talent. He can beautifully illuminate the simplest, everyday incidents . . . . Since the release of The Piano Tuner, which has been adapted as a play and an opera, and is in production as a film, Mason has finished medical school. He hasn’t yet done his residency and is at work on a new book. Thank goodness.”
–Kim Curtis, Associated Press
“[An] intriguing parable . . . fascinating . . . disturbingly enigmatic . . . . Mason keeps the reader off guard and guessing, and . . . there’s a terrific payoff–a riveting climactic scene.”
“This highly anticipated second novel from Mason, following The Piano Tuner, doesn’t disappoint. Once again Mason employs his unusual, remarkable prose style to tell of a journey of discovery. Fourteen-year-old Isabel, born with the gift of ‘seeing farther, hearing better,’ lives on the edge of a sugarcane plantation in an unnamed Third World country. Land grabbing by government officials and a long drought have turned the people in her small, close-knit village sullen and silent . . . Desperate, [Isabel’s parents] decide to send her to the city to live with her cousin and her adored older brother, Isaias. But Isabel finds that the city is far from the paradise she envisioned, [and] worst of all, her brother has not been seen for weeks. As Isabel attempts to find [him], she must deal with both the contempt of the rich and the pity of city bureaucrats, but she never loses her determination or sense of self-worth. Mason invests his story with all the power of a fable, one that gives Isabel’s personal bravery its due while also relaying the timelessness of human suffering.”
–Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist