Harland's Half Acre
David Malouf in Harland’s Half Acre traces the career of a fictional Australian painter, Frank Harland, and focuses first on his childhood, then on his endeavor to define and develop his artistic vision, and finally on the wide recognition of his achievement. Intersecting the private paths the eccentric Harland trods are the public roads on which travel the ordinary people—the relatives, friends, acquaintances, art critics, some who understand his quest and others who shun him or take advantage of the financial rewards his art brings. The land, crisscrossed by those paths and roads, plays a distinctive role as well, for from his experiences of it and its people Harland carves his “half acre.”
There exists in the novel a perfect melding of theme with structure and style. That the artist’s life is beset by a duality never to be reconciled Malouf makes clear through the double narrative which reveals, on the one hand, the inner strife the artist undergoes in order to forge his vision and, on the other hand, the public arena wherein the artist lives, yet from which he remains aloof while drawing from it the materials that will provide substance for his art. The six divisions of the novel juxtapose these contradictory elements one against the other. Through a detached third-person narrator, parts 1, 3, and 5 tell of Harland’s solitary, creative life, whereas the alternate sections, directed toward the larger world of which Harland is a part, rely on the first-person recollections of one of his close friends, his lawyer and confidant. An examination of this double narrative will show how effectively Malouf has blended the theme into the structure.
The opening recounts Harland’s childhood in Queensland, Australia, during the 1920’s. The details of his growing up play a minor role in the narrative, which concerns itself more fully with discovery than biography. After Harland’s mother dies, he goes to live with an uncle and an austere aunt, who still mourns her own son lost in World War I. Later he returns to his then twice-widowed father to grow up in a humble cottage along with his four brothers. On reaching maturity, he sets out on his own, first to Brisbane, then on the road with other Depression victims whose misery he shares; through that sharing, though, is revealed to him a truth that will serve him well in the years to come: “He discovered that he belonged. But with those who were outside.” The events recorded gain importance only as far as they relate to Harland’s development as a painter. From his aunt’s obsessive grief, he learns about pain and sorrow; from his father’s endless tales of the family’s glorious past, of ghosts, and of strange occurrences, he unearths the hidden places of imagination; from the degradation out on the road and from those other lost ones from whom he drew succor, he perceives the depths of the human spirit. Then he finds the land:These scenes fed his senses. They were of a grandeur that caught all his blood up in a display of cloud and colour that could transfigure the most ordinary day. They were a drama that had never been expressed. Well he would find forms for it. Great eloquent evenings as solemn and still as the brows of women—that sort of grandeur. Whiplike dawns: a crack of sunlight from sinewy arms.
The third part of the novel completes the tracing of Harland’s stages of discovery. His friendship with Knack, a Polish refugee from Hitler-plagued Europe, brings to Harland more complex mental and emotional configurations than he has known before. Under the European’s tutelage, both Harland and Knack’s Australian mistress realize that they are innocents, sunny Australians altogether naïve when confronted with the dark knowledge possessed by this man who has witnessed and undergone all manner of suffering in an ancient country of another hemisphere about which they have only the dimmest knowledge. Knack, as well, introduces Harland to great music, whose strains haunt him and, in spite of...
(The entire section is 1636 words.)