A Thousand Acres

First candidate for prize-winning novels to read over summer is a great American novel, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres ( 1991). Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction  in 1992, a fitting accolade for ‘distinguished fiction by an American author … dealing with the American way of life.’

What makes this novel so memorable is its theme; A Thousand Acres is a modern, fictional re-working of King Lear.  The acres of land named in the title belong to Larry Cook, an ageing farmer with three daughters: Ginny, Rose and Caroline. The story of the old man’s division of his land is told by the eldest daughter, Ginny, representing Shakespeare’s Goneril in her abandonment of Caroline / Cordelia and her siding with Rose (Regan.)

With Ginny as narrator, the novel inevitably takes on a different cast to the Shakespearean play: this is a story that focusses on Lear’s daughters rather than on the king himself. The themes of generational conflict, patriarchy and power all have other implications when they are expressed by  women instead of men. Ginny is a finely-drawn character: a gentle, country-bred woman, she is loving, vulnerable and unused to standing up to her arrogant father. Her situation is the same as Goneril’s, but her character  and reactions could not be more different.

I have read A Thousand Acres several times now, and each time I get something new from Smiley’s powerful retelling of this archetypal story. It’s made me read and re-read King Lear, and think about the complexities of its themes and the significance of point of view in revealing a character’s inner life and motivations.

Easily worthy of America’s most significant literary prize, A Thousand Acres is one of the 20th century’s great novels – don’t miss the opportunity to read it if you haven’t done so already.


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