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Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Hope Farm - Peggy Frew - 2016 Stella Prize

On International Women’s Day it is only appropriate that I look at a novel that has been longlisted for the Stella Prize, a Prize for Australian female writers.

I was hoping to get to as many of the twelve longlisted novels before the shortlist announcement this Thursday 10 March 2016, however it looks as though I will only get to four of the longlist. Jen Craig’s “Panthers & the Museum of Fire”,  “Six Bedrooms” by Tegan Bennett Daylight  and Charlotte Wood’s “The Natural Way ofThings”. With the Man Booker International Prize announcing their longlist on 10 March 2016, and being a member of the Shadow Jury for that award, I am tipping I’ll be a tad busy reading international literature over the coming months, however there is always a chance that the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize contains a number of works I have already read and I may have more spare time to read Australian literature than I had planned, I know…I’m kidding myself, the last few years I have read only one or two of the longlist so have at least ten books to get through over a month!!!

Peggy Frew’s “Hope Farm” opens with an epigram by Margaret Atwood; “You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.” (from Cat’s Eye) – will memory will be the theme here? A short section then follows a short dreamlike sequence, a wish for our narrator to return to Hope Farm before the main novel commences, an opening section titled “Before”, it is imperative you understand, the epicentre here is Hope Farm, what comes before that is simply ‘before’, this novel is a hodgepodge of memories:

It’s hard to remember much from before Hope. We lived in so many places – and in my memory they’ve merged to form a kind of hazy, overlapping backdrop. Certain details leap briefly to catch the light: a kitchen where I climbed into a cupboard and watched a woman’s feet shuffle back and forth as she cooked the hem of her orange robe lapping; the chain-link fence of a school yard, cool under hooked fingers and tasting, when I put my tongue to it, of tears; a dog with new puppies under a verandah, lifting her head to growl when we came squirming in on our elbows, me and a girl whose name is now lost but whose pierced ears I recall perfectly – the wonder of those gold circlets entering the downy, padded lobes. None of these details are anchored though – these is no sequence, no scaffold on which to hang them.

Once our narrator, thirteen-year-old Silver gets to Hope Farm in Victoria from an ashram in Brisbane, with her mother Ishtar, it is winter and we see the failed attempts of the residents at self-sufficiency. Doped out, on the dole (welfare) or working meaningless fruit picking jobs and living on a dilapidated farm:

So the crops had failed, the goats were gone, the compost was rotten, but still they stayed, these people. I suppose they had nowhere better to go. It was the eighties – they were a dying breed. And they were tired; their ideals had seized up and grown heavy somehow, and they didn’t know how to put them down. That’s the only explanation I can come up with now. At the time, of course, I gave it no thought. They were just there, they did what they did – or didn’t – and we were there as well, and I would simply, like always, have to put up with it.

The novel is broken into small sections with every so often a childlike diary/memoir appearing, highlighted by a different font, and it is the voice of a young pregnant girl, whose voice is this?

Silver lives through the town stigma attached to being a “hippy” child, the branding of being dirty, crawling with parasites, worms, lice, “running wild no doubt”. As each page unfolds we have a slow layering of experiences through the eyes of an impressionable child, and how these ‘snippets” of experience and memories mould and shape the adult our narrator is today.

A novel steeped in memory, the unreliability of such, a life made of fragments, the voice of an unreliable narrator, of course a character or voice common throughout literature, in this case this is a prominent feature, skilfully woven throughout to ensure the reader is always questioning the validity of the story instead of simply falling into the narration. This is a well-crafted feature throughout this book:

Or is this only how I remember her? Perhaps she did turn, did set down the peeler and come and site by me at the table, to put her arm around me, to lean in close so her warmth filled my breaths, asking me a question and then waiting for the answer. I often wonder if I have done her a disservice in the way I recall her, in what I have managed to haul from the murk and lay out under the harsh beans of examination and analysis. But I am at the mercy of memory. All I can do is hang on, attend to what I’m supplied with, squint and puzzle over it.

Split into “before’ and “after”, containing the full breadth of the seasons, this is a novel exposing two sides to every story, we have the simple uneducated diary narration of the young innocent interrupting the reflective prose of a grown woman looking back at her childhood, reflecting on her upbringing on a self-sufficient “hippy commune” and wondering at all of the events that have moulded her into the woman she is today.

Early on we are privy to a mysterious event that would shape our narrator, that would “invoke all of those ghosts” and this hook, although easily identified, is a mystery that you need to decipher yourself. A well-crafted, readable and enjoyable novel about family relationships, memory, development of character, blended with a number of tragic stories that come bubbling to the surface. A worthy contender for the shortlist announcement later this week.

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