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In 'Far Country,' living just enough for the city

DANIEL MASON DANIEL MASON (JOANNE CHAN)

A Far Country
By Daniel Mason
Knopf, 268 pp., $24

Daniel Mason's best-selling debut, "The Piano Tuner," featured an ingenious plot: A quiet Englishman is dispatched to colonial Burma to fix the piano of an eccentric army officer. His second novel, "A Far Country ," lacks that sort of obvious hook. But it is a far greater achievement: a staggeringly beautiful meditation on poverty, migration, and class that stands as a worthy successor to Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."

The story is a simple one. 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 Isaias, whom she spends most of 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 to his credit, Mason doesn't lean on this device to stoke the action. Instead, he chooses to relate her story using a strain of realism whose magic resides in its sensual precision and empathy.

"Isabel was three when she left and four when she came home," Mason writes, of her first trip from her village, "and so her memory was only a child's memory . . . . 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 from the ground; her father's hands, pink-burned and black with the grease of the engine."

When she turns 13, Isabel is sent to the city by her parents. Their motives are simple: If she remains in the backlands, she risks starving to death. And yet she nearly starves to death before she reaches the city.

Mason never specifies what country he is writing about, nor need he. Visit any developing country and you will find the same harrowing tableau: a capital city overrun with migrants desperate to find sustenance any way they can.

Isabel joins this teeming mass, and most of the book traces her halting path toward this new life. But Mason is also 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 . He is not interested in merely the sociology of sprawl, but the human toll suffered by its constituents.

Here, he offers a brief catalog of those tired souls packed onto a night bus: "Now the watchmen crowded in with the cleaning women, factory night-shifters, and girls who said they were waitresses. The women who were old and free from the tyranny of once being beautiful watched the girls tug on their short skirts with a mixture of sadness and anger. The night guards also watched the waitresses, inhaling their heavy perfume as the bus swayed. They also felt sadness and anger, but they felt desire, too, which made the sadness and anger stronger."

Elsewhere, Mason tells us about the men who take to the sea in hopes of finding riches. "They disembarked on the mildew-stained docks of a cobbled city with a golden cathedral and markets reeking of rotting fruit. In the evening, when the market had closed, they walked barefoot over a boardwalk thick with the slush of papaya. They fought the cats for scraps. They had been fed by the companies, but still they were hungry, as if hunger were an old habit that couldn't be broken."

The bargain, Mason reminds us, is the same no matter the setting: dignity in exchange for survival.

Isabel herself is degraded by her experiences. And yet she is also slowly steeled. She settles in with a cousin who lives in the shanties, finds work and eventually a kind-hearted boyfriend. But she can't shake her obsession with tracking down her brother. He has become, in her mind, a heroic talisman, her last link to her past and the one figure powerful enough to tame the future. In the child's part of her mind, she feels certain Isaias will rescue her.

When she finally finds him again, their encounter is shattering. Isaias must admit that the stories he once told her, of his triumphant sojourn to the city, were just that: stories. "There is no music, there is no band, there is no beautiful girl in the square. There are . . . no compliments from men who say that I have true talent. Those are words that I invented. In the world I must live in, I am just like everyone else, caught in the movement of those who have nothing."

If I have made this book sound depressing, the fault is entirely mine. It is 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 is the author of the forthcoming essay collection "(Not That You Asked)."

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