This was an ARC from NetGalley.
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I have to admit that I was a bit worried going into this reading. Not because of anything in the book description (after all, I had requested the ARC because it sounded interesting), but because of what I saw when I opened the book. Mainly, pages listing character names, places, and historical events. The cast was huge, the events spanned a century of Brazil’s history, and I started wondering what I had gotten myself into.
And then I remembered why I always skip this kind of introductory material: it plants a little seed of discontent against a book before I’ve even begun to read it, and that’s just not fair for either reader or author. So I decided to stop staring at those lists and just dive into the novel.
Liberty Farm can best be described as a family saga, a large-scale soap opera that follows a Brazilian family from the 1890s to around 1990. Most of the story is focused on patriarch Ezra and his long-suffering wife Helena. By the time of their deaths, around two thirds of the way through, we have also come to know all their children and the children’s spouses, so the transition from one generation to the next is quite seamless.
There’s no central story, but rather a series of episodes documenting the family’s joys and tribulations as they settle and grow around Liberty Farm. Ezra, and his sons once they marry, are obsessed with producing as many sons as possible. As is often the case, nature sometimes gets in the way: miscarriages, childhood deaths, and the birth of daughters (“wasted bellies,” as the disappointed parents call them) create tension and unhappiness in already volatile relationships. There are also struggles over land and inheritance, and rivalries among siblings vying for a father’s love and attention.
It’s actually quite easy to keep track of all the family members, even those with similar names or less involvement in the story. The setting – a harsh, arid region of northeastern Brazil – is very different from what most people associate with a country famous for its beaches and rainforest, which makes for a very interesting backdrop for the changes that take place over the decades.
Running parallel to the family drama is Brazil’s own growing pains as it becomes fully industrialized and goes through a series of authoritarian regimes, some more repressive than others. Although, for the most part, Ezra and his family don’t care about politics and seem completely removed from the coups and upheavals, there are times when the effects of history trickle down and can’t be ignored: for Ezra, two world wars and an economic depression that put an end to his first export business; and for one of his sons, a military takeover that forces him into hiding.
You’ll enjoy Liberty Farm if you like sprawling dramas centered on family relationships. The writing is simple, almost documentary-style, with few lengthy descriptions and a lot of telling about how characters feel instead of scenes or dialogue showing their emotions. It’s readable, but a bit difficult to ease into if you’re used to more elaborate prose.
Finally, I wish the lists of names and places had been included in appendix sections at the end of the book. It is a good novel, and it would be a shame for potential readers to feel discouraged because the first thing they encountered was a daunting amount of preliminary material.