Reviewed by Annabel
Peggy Frew is an up and coming Australian author, and Hope Farm is her second novel. Alongside her writing, Peggy plays bass and sings in indie band Art of Fighting in Melbourne, an experience she used in her debut novel House of Sticks in which a mother struggles with parenting and a return to the music business.
Published in Australia in 2015, Hope Farm was shortlisted for the Stella Prize – Australia’s equivalent of our Bailey’s Prize for women’s novels. Again, the major theme is motherhood and parenting, but it is presented from a different perspective.
In 1985 Silver was thirteen, and she remembers back to that year when everything changed for her and Ishtar, her mother, when they joined the Hope Farm commune – the next stage in their transitory life:
Men were usually involved, in both the endings and the beginnings. Boyfriends, lovers, partners – whatever they were to her in the varied and loose lexicon of the circles in which we moved. I can glimpse them still, a collage of faces, mostly bearded, mostly framed with quantities of hair. … But I have no memory of any actual break-ups, of men begging or raging at having been left. I recall no messy scenes. Ishtar was so good at it, I suppose, so practised. She simply withdrew and allowed things to collapse.
This time it would be different. And I imagine now – when that pocket opens in the haze and Miller first appears, first spreads and cups his hands, first unfolds the smooth carpet of his voice – that I could tell from the beginning.
Ishtar had wanted them to travel, to go overseas – but then the charismatic Miller happened, and Ishtar agrees to follow him from Brisbane down southwards to Victoria and Hope Farm. They arrive there by train before Miller and Silver is not impressed with this community. 8 to 10 adults and just one annoying younger kid, Jindi, Silver will have to find her own friends.
I was used to this, to arriving, to having Ishtar seamlessly meld with the household – working, working, weaving herself into new patterns – to being left to manage my own slow and reluctant settling. I doubt I was a typical thirteen-year-old. I imagine I was very naïve in some ways, and unusually worldly in others. … What kinds of books were there to read? There was never a television. Hope, it was clear from the beginning, lacked on every count.
Silver will make a friend – a boy in her new class at school is a neighbour. Ian is severely bullied at school, but they meet at the stream up the creek beyond their homes where Ian plans his revenge on the class bully.
Once Miller actually arrives at Hope Farm, the balance changes. He has plans to regenerate the failing farm if he can get enough money together. He is the alpha male and Ishtar is totally under his spell, so much so, that when he goes away again and returns with another woman who is his real wife, Dawn, who is sick. Ishtar seems to take the fact that she is relegated to second place with equanimity, it’ll take a while before she gets bothered by his antics.
Silver observes all the community’s dynamics with detachment, Frew captures the feeling of communal living well, the period detail is nicely polished. She gets on with her life, concentrating on doing well at school. She loves her mother, but is not close to her. Ishtar was only a teenager when she’d had Silver, is still emotionally immature, and being young and beautiful uses that to go from one relationship to the next. Poor Silver is always left at the edge of Ishtar’s life.
Silver’s narration is interspersed with short extracts of Ishtar’s own diary from the 1960s when she fell pregnant. Abortion wasn’t an option, but she declined to give Silver up for adoption – going straight into the first of many communes with her baby, abandoned by her own family for whom her disgrace was just too much.
I really took to Silver, who is long-suffering and anxious about her future. Silver is full of love, but Ishtar is impervious to her daughter’s anguish, not capable of being the mother Silver needs, whereas Silver at thirteen is not yet capable of being an adult. It was painful to read at times and I was mentally shouting at Ishtar, ‘You’re losing your daughter – look at her!’ many times. Ishtar, in her blinkered state, was difficult to like as a character, in spite of gaining an understanding of how she got to be that way.
As the relationship between Miller and Ishtar finally begins to deteriorate, to quote from the blurb, Silver ‘is thrust into an unrelenting adult world – and the walls begin to come tumbling down, with deadly consequences.’ The climax is admittedly a little melodramatic, but the coda to the novel clearly shows the damage done to Silver over the years as she closes her narration.
Hope Farm is a novel that will tug at your heart and leave you saddened about the damage that can be done by love – loving, being loved and not being loved enough.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Read our Q&A with Peggy Frew here.
Peggy Frew, Hope Farm (Scribe, 2016) 978-1925228533, 352 pp., hardback.
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