Malouf deals in this novel with themes that he has addressed in earlier fiction and poetry: exile, belonging to the land or to a society, and hopelessness that is expressed through suicide. For example, an earlier study of an artist separated from his society is An Imaginary Life (1978). It recounts the life of the Roman poet Ovid and describes his achievement of a spiritual communion with the region along the Danube River, where he has long been exiled. In Johnno (1975), the title character and a friend nicknamed “Dante” leave Australia in search of identity. Harland, in contrast, is utterly steeped in the genius of his own locale. Yet he, too, ponders at times the rich historical and cultural heritage of Europe that Australia lacks.
Johnno and Harland’s Half Acre have other elements in common. Like two characters in the later book, Johnno commits suicide through despair and emotional instability. This second characteristic is one he shares with a number of the minor characters in Harland’s Half Acre.
Both novels also include carefully drawn evocations of Southern Queensland at earlier times in this century and of the characters’ family lives. With this technique, Malouf places his characters in social contexts that suggest some of the prevailing characteristics of the Australian national identity. He suggests that the foremost characteristic of those who have tried to shape that identity has been an urge to escape the incipient society long enough to reorient it and refine it.
Malouf does this most ambitiously in Harland’s Half Acre. Often the cogs of his grand construction grind audibly, but the work was greeted as the strongest to that point in his career.