Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living
Throughout the book I was particularly aware of the detached, emotionless voice – almost as if the narrator was an alien inhabiting a human body in order to observe and record. Jean goes through all sorts of intense experiences (the near death of a beloved pet as a child, the loss of her father, sudden sexual encounter and marriage, drought, plague – to name a few), but the style consistently puts the reader at a distance from them rather than drawing them close (let alone ‘in’). I’m not sure how deliberate this is, but it made me less sympathetic to Jean. I still believed her, for example, when she condemned Robert for his lack of faith in the genuineness of her love, but there’s nothing in the style of the prose to suggest any warmth or affection. This is particularly jarring in the non-existent courtship: the relationship is a vacuum (yet suddenly these two innocents with no experience or communication are having Mills and Boon fantasy sex – and seem to have not even a hint of the prevailing sexual mores of the time). Maybe this passionless style works well with Australian book-judging panels – this vaguely reminded me of a well-written but (for me) unengaging Kate Grenville I read years ago (The Idea of Perfection).
Tiffany does a creditable job of evoking the pompous, unquestioning self-confidence of some scientific traditions. There is more going on here than a mere morality tale, but this *is* a morality tale, and Robert as the emblem of science is fairly comprehensively ridiculed. Or maybe of that type of science that has lost awe and humility. It does still exist, and I suspect would have been be fulsomely documented in the thirties (I also suspect Tiffany did effective research of such documentation – much of the book feels flavoured with that different time and place: I enjoyed the way she wove historical detail into her story – rather than, say, the clumsy cut and paste of something like FitzSimon’s Batavia). Robert is not a mere demonised caricature, and has some sympathetic elements and more than one dimension. Although maybe he is demonised, but in a more subtle, careful, patient and comprehensive way than usual: on reflection, despite the careful backstories and nuances of character, Jean is pretty much portrayed as faultless, and Robert – in deliberate contrast – is mercilessly reduced to the essence of a fool (no redeeming features), by the vicissitudes of nature, and by his implacable author.