A young girl sets out on a journey to find her beloved playmate, traveling great distances and undergoing hardship until she finds him. In his second novel, Daniel Mason takes the plot from fairy tales such as "The Snow Queen" but transplants it to a hot, drought-ridden land where snow itself would seem magical and a palace built from ice an unbelievable decadence.
Mason's acclaimed first novel, "The Piano Tuner," also sent a most unlikely candidate on a journey, into the interior of 19th-century Burma. But in his second novel, he trades precision for vague portents. "A Far Country" takes place in an unnamed city in an unnamed country in an area that could be either South America or Southeast Asia. But any weaknesses of plot in this novel can't obscure the abundance of beautiful prose that ultimately creates a compelling parable of poverty and survival.
Isabel grew up in a small northern village that "they would one day name Saint Michael in the Cane." When it rains, the families raise goats and zebu cows and work in the sugarcane fields. They can coax manioc and melons from the most stony soil. In the years that it doesn't rain, they eat cacti, mix earth into their beans so they will last longer, and catch ants and lizards. As if this weren't hardship enough, men show up from the south claiming to own the land and murdering villagers who try to farm without giving them half. Her village could be the one Isabel reads of in a story, "a land so poor it grew only gravestones."
Despite all this, Isabel considers herself content. The source of her happiness is her adored older brother, Isaias. She's followed him like a puppy since she could walk, eagerly listening to his dreams of becoming a professional musician in "the city."
"On the school map, it sat on the underbelly of the country, and she imagined it at the end of a long descent down a great plain; when someone left to work there, the people said they had 'gone down to the city,' and when they returned they came 'back up' north. A shuddering descent, like falling from the sky."
More and more northern villagers are making that journey, Isaias among them, causing Isabel's father to call it "a city built on drought."
Eventually, unable to find work, her father sends 14-year-old Isabel to the city after Isaias. Their cousin, Manuela, needs someone to look after her baby son while she's at work.
It's a four-day journey perched in the back of a flatbed truck, and when she gets to the slums of the New Settlements where Manuela lives, Isabel discovers that no one has seen Isaias for weeks. The strong, ever-practical Manuela tries to comfort her, pointing out that Isaias has disappeared before and has always come home again. "Isaias isn't stupid.... Hopeful, maybe, which is the best friend of stupid, but not stupid."
While she continues to search for Isaias, Isabel settles into her new existence, looking after Manuela's son while Manuela works as a maid for a rich family. On weekends, she breathes in car exhaust fumes all day, waving a flag for a political candidate on a street corner to earn a few dollars.
She makes two friends: Josiane, a teenage mother who works with her, and Alin, a "portrait seller" who makes photo collages for poor people.
Isabel is a largely passive hero whose strengths are her abilities to endure and to listen. Endurance and silence are virtues taught in her village; ambition puzzles her.
"All the way along: a world full of people who want to know what you will be, what is your skill and what is your purpose," she muses. "In the north, if a man had come and said, What will you be? What will you do? I would have laughed at this kind of person that lives all the time in the future."
Readers will probably agree with Josiane, who tells Isabel, "Your problem is that you're too meek." Josiane is baffled by Isabel's search, which consists of wandering the city aimlessly, hoping she runs into Isaias.
"My relatives in the north are like you," Josiane tells her friend. "Waiting people. You probably think the answer will come to you in a dream. You think waiting will solve everything. Maybe it would if you were rich. If you were rich, your brother would be in the papers. Isabel's brother missing! they would say. Top news! But you're not."
"A Far Country" doesn't try to make things easy – once Isabel makes it to the city, the plot gets so vague that readers may struggle to retain a purchase.
But those who persevere will be rewarded by the climax, when Isabel at last discovers what has become of Isaias. While the novel doesn't attain the level of modern myth one senses Mason was striving for, it does achieve a certain power as an imperfectly realized, yet moving, fable.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.