I declare an interest. I own a farm in Latin America. It is much smaller than the one of which this author became the Doña for several years. Also, I came to my farm late in life, whereas when she came to hers when she was a teenager. Sometimes, when I walk the few hundred yards to the back of my land and look across the valley, I think of her doing the same in the early 1970s. The biggest difference is that when she did so, everything that she could see belonged to her (or, more accurately, the husband from the aristocratic Venezuelan family that she had married). She was mistress of the equivalent of a small province, with its own population, who – in time – looked to her for help.
When I came to my farm – also married – in 2003, it sometimes felt a daunting prospect to build a house, build a life, and manage the land. In reality, with a talented wife well-versed in local affairs, we have managed with very few calamities. Lisa St Aubin de Teran, on the other hand, seemed to have almost nothing going for her when she arrived on her massive estate. Her husband, lovingly attentive in Britain, became a stranger who disregarded the practicalities of life on the hacienda, was frequently absent and went progressively mad. The house where they should have lived had been rented out. Both his family and ‘la gente’ – the workers and inhabitants of the hacienda – regarded her as an oddity because of her youth and her strange Spanish. She clearly couldn’t be a proper ‘Doña’ for the hacienda.
Lisa seemed ill-equipped to cope with her husband, the family, the house, the land and the people. Yet cope she does. She somehow asserts control. She slumps frequently into highly understandable depression, yet climbs out of it again. She plants avocados, buys sheep, keeps an improbable range of pets (only some of which die) and eventually forms a household of which her husband is only a fleeting member – frequently locked in his room or leaving unannounced by a window. She manages eventually to gain the credentials of a proper wife by producing a daughter. And after a similar amount of time, she realises what role she has to assume: ‘la gente’ have numerous problems, they need someone to intervene on their behalf and provide some of the things they don’t have, and she decides she can help them and in the process gain their respect. In time she gains their love too, and as she says, her relationship with them was a formative one for her, and has enormously influenced her writing since then.
In this book, Lisa St Aubin de Teran not only describes her personal and fascinating struggle, but she captures much of the struggle which the lives of ‘la gente’ represent, too. She describes the land and the country with which she almost seems to have a love-hate relationship. And she gives us glances into the agonies she went through – and the rewards – of forging a life out of the most bizarre and unpromising ingredients.
When she eventually leaves, we sense her exhaustion. We are happy though – as maybe she was too – that she had had the experience. Without it there would be no ‘The Hacienda’ and we would have missed a brilliant piece of descriptive writing, adding mature afterthoughts to the those of a nevertheless strikingly capable and strong teenage girl who survived an experience that would have defeated most of her readers.
Original post: Goodreads