Hill Farm by Miranda France

published by Chatto and Windus, 2011

Miranda France is well known for two non fiction books, one about Argentina, Bad Times in Buenos Aires (1999) and Don Quixote's Delusions (2002). Now she offers us her first attempt at fiction.

Hill Farm is about English country life in modern Britain. Parts of the novel are humorous and ironic. Other parts are a page-turner of suspense that makes it a two-sit read. Hill Farm describes traditional farming practices and how they collide with urban sensitivities. It is also a story about falling in love for the very first time, even after one has been married long enough to bear three children and raise them into childhood.

Miranda France handles both themes with skill, never permitting either to lapse into polemics or sentimentality. Indeed one of her many strengths as a storyteller is the complexity of her characters. Like real people in life, France's main characters are nuanced personalities, neither all good nor all bad.

The first theme will wreck havoc in the hearts of the politically correct who want to exchange animal protein in our diets for plant foods; who think that grazing cattle is counter-productive to a sustainable economy; who love nature -- make that Nature -- but resent the agricultural habits of those who make a living from farming. This attitude is represented by the author's character, Robin Payne, a vegetarian city guy who now lives in a small English village because he loves the country, especially districts designated as AONB, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Farmer Hayes from whom he is renting a cottage cannot understand his tenant whom he calls a "pseudo-intellectual" and is astonished when Payne suffers an emotional breakdown after he witnesses the deliberate destruction of a hedgerow. Hayes himself is an intelligent man and while he resents his tenant's rather precious politics he knows unavoidable changes are coming. "Farming was entering a new age, becoming an enterprise for scientists employed by large agrochemical companies. A future of bureaucracy, of rules, regulations and form filling loomed on the road ahead."

Farmer Hayes employs Jack, an Australian cattle rancher who falls in love with Isabel Hayes and starts an affair with her. Until then, Isabel's life was colorless, confined to a farmer's wifely chores and mothering. It might be easy to dismiss falling in love as a clichéd plot point, but France's description of Jack's effect on Isabel's life works brilliantly, evoking the magic and incontrovertible power of erotic attraction. Words are often useless to describe such feelings. Some authors do it better than others. Linguistically, some languages describe erotic love more effectively than others, such as Egyptian Arabic, for example, as we find in Palace of Desire by Naguib Mahfouz.

Miranda France does not attempt to describe Isabel's feelings. Instead she ironically uses pop songs as a reference. "Jack's kiss ignited in her unimagined euphoria and sent spinning into motion a thousand clichés. For the first time she knew what it was like to walk on air. She was over the moon, knocked for six, head-over-heels. The trite lyrics of pop songs seemed full of wisdom to her; they spoke straight to her heart." Isabel creates an emotional cocoon for herself so that she can keep Jack private and indulge in her memories throughout the day. She keeps a mental file of audio-video clips, each one a different love making episode or conversation.

While praising Hill Farm in his review in the Guardian, Alfred Hickling says France "is rather less disciplined when it comes to the subject of romance." Surely this is a gender issue. Hickling has never experienced falling in love from a woman's point of view and one can only guess if he has ever been one half of an illicit affair. But France's descriptions of Isabel's reactions will bring a smile of recognition to any woman who has. "She laughed ruefully, lingering on the doorstep for a few seconds longer than was necessary. She allowed a melancholic cast to shape her lips, conveying -- if he chose to notice it -- how much of a disappointment it was to have run out of reasons to visit. Just as she wonders how to interpret the speed of Jack's response the other night, he must now interpret her delay on his doorstep. When love is at stake, these minute infractions need to be scrutinized with scientific care. Metaphorical lab gloves may be donned... and a range of precision measuring implements come intro play. Of such a mysterious and fragile substance is human attraction made."

Undisciplined prose? Hardly.