three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
28-May-June-2007
By: 
Daniel Mason
user_rating: 
0

A-A Far CountryIn an unnamed backlands in South America or Southeast Asia, 14-year-old Isabel, an adolescent with psychic powers, lives near a sugarcane plantation in a drought-ridden village. Desperate, penniless, and near starvation, her parents send her to the outskirts of a city, the New Eden settlement, to live with her cousin Manuela and older brother Isais, a musician. The settlement, however, is no better than the village she left behind: Isabel witnesses violence, class exploitation, pollution, and a nearby war. Worse yet, her brother is nowhere to be found. As Isabel sets off in search of him, she relies on her spiritual world, intuitive powers, and love for her brother for survival.
Knopf. 268 pages. $24. ISBN: 0375414665

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"A Far Country is his second novel and should be a phenomenon in its own right; it’s better than his first. … [It] is just long enough and ends exactly as it should." Bill Campbell

San Jose Mercury News 4 of 5 Stars
"Choosing the point of view of a sensitive naif like Isabel allows Mason to explore the book’s landscapes, rural and urban, with a fresh and unjaded eye. … In its alternations between bleakness and hope, A Far Country is keenly perceived, richly imagined and delicately felt." Charles Matthews

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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. … While A Far Country doesn’t boast of any pyrotechnic feats of storytelling, it is a beautifully contained narrative that illuminates a singular life." Danielle Chapman

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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 … seeks to extend a blessing over manmade catastrophe." Elsbeth Lindner

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"I have to admit wishing for a Dickensian reversal as I slogged through chapter after chapter of hardship in A Far Country. But maybe it’s to Mason’s credit that he conveys poverty so realistically." McMahon

Baltimore Sun 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Mason has woven a slow and claustrophobic dreamscape for his second novel. Not always a successful exercise, but disturbingly, provocatively compelling." Victoria A. Brownworth

Washington Post 1.5 of 5 Stars
"If you have a low tolerance for magical realism, don’t worry: It quickly fades away here in favor of a flatter, rather static lament about the plight of The Poor (wherever they may be) at the hands of The Rich (you know who you are). … Despite many passages of beautiful writing, the novel suffers from an aimless plot, characters almost as abstract as the setting, and languid moralizing about the tragedy of poverty." Ron Charles

Critical Summary

Daniel Mason was a medical student at the University of California, San Francisco, when he wrote the critically acclaimed best seller The Piano Tuner (2002). He has once again proven his literary talent with A Far Country, even if this second novel garnered more mixed reviews. Mason exhibits the same lush, imaginative writing of The Piano Tuner, but here—despite touches of magical realism—he presents a spare, more allegorical vision of poverty. In fact, the setting could be anywhere from Saõ Paulo to Jakarta, Nairobi, or Manila, though Mason’s descriptions and characters render it realistic. A few critics faulted the weak plot, didactic tone, and fact-heavy narration, but all admitted that Mason is a writer to watch.

Also by the Author

The Piano Tuner (2002): In 1886, a piano tuner leaves England to repair a rare Erard grand piano in Burma. He finds more than a broken instrument, however, when he gets caught up in a political agenda and falls in love with Burma’s exotic landscape and culture.