New Pastures

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Absolution Creek by Nicole Alexander

Imagine chick lit gone country, with cosmopolitans replaced by shots of rum, Louboutin shoes by muddied boots, and corporate ladders by regular ones that actually reach past the ceiling. It turns out that city girls are starting to love the idea, at least in Australia, where what's known as farm lit — or chook lit, chook being Australian slang for a chicken — is publishing's latest phenomenon, with rural romances outselling other fiction.

Farm lit is not entirely virgin territory. Colleen McCullough's 1977 antipodean saga, The Thorn Birds, sold 30 million books and birthed a miniseries. But the great girl stories of recent years have all centered on the urban working woman — think Bridget Jones's Diary or the hugely successful TV series inspired by Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City — and a new crop of farm-lit writers is here to return female protagonists to the land. In doing so, they are resonating with a readership that has a renewed appreciation of the environment and is turning to escapist fiction set outside the shoe-box apartments and high-rise offices that have mushroomed in Australia's coastal cities during the past 20 years.

With record droughts, floods and bushfires consistently hitting the headlines, the travails of Australian farmers are better understood than ever, making them rich material for novelists like Nicole Alexander, author of Absolution Creek and one of farm lit's leading lights. As a fourth-generation grazier working on her family's station in northern New South Wales, she has firsthand experience of rural struggle — but she's also no stranger to the workaday lives of her urban readers, having worked in finance in Sydney and in fashion in Singapore. When asked why she gave up the glamour to live in a place where the nearest store is an hour's drive away, she replies: "I have a very strong attachment to the land. My great-grandfather is buried here. I am humbled by the idea of my ancestors who have gone before me. I thought, if I write the story of my love of the land, it might help people understand."

That love emanates from her elegantly written and emotionally haunting novel. Absolution Creek begins in 1920s Sydney, moving to the birth of a sheep station some 1,300 km northwest. A young city man, with no idea of how to ride a horse, let alone rear sheep, arrives in the outback with just that remit. He blunders on until a teenage girl washes up in the floods at his remote property. Cue mystery, tragedy, romance and a narrative spanning four decades.

Alexander's first novel, The Bark Cutters, was an Australian best seller and translated into German, which has her thinking that farm lit's next frontier might lie farther than previously thought. "I have German friends in Hamburg who say the interest is massive," she says. "They see Australia as being so isolated from the rest of the world, a pure unspoilt country that still has large sections they consider to be on par with America's [former] western frontier." The Wild West and the outback certainly have authenticity in common, but Down Under, it's women cracking the whip.