Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 18, 2016

Hope Farm, by Peggy Frew #BookReview

Hope FarmHope Farm is Peggy Frew’s second novel, and it’s longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award.  (See the rest of the longlist here). Although its setting is a hippie commune in decline, it’s an elegy for kids brought up in dysfunctional circumstances anywhere.

Silver, looking back on her childhood and the traumatic events of her thirteenth year in 1985, narrates most of the story, with interleaved excerpts from her mother’s memoir filling in her own backstory.  Her mother is Ishtar née Karen, who embraced the communal lifestyle when at seventeen she became pregnant and it seemed like the only alternative to giving up her baby.  Their subsequent life involved trailing around from one commune to another, Ishtar chasing the love she didn’t get from her parents when she needed it, and Silver – initially the sole object of Ishtar’s love and attention – gradually becoming wise beyond her years as she observes her mother’s immaturity fracture their relationship.

By the time they get to Hope Farm in rural Gippsland, Silver has become inured to neglect and squalor, and she absorbs with stoicism the taunts of her schoolfellows at each successive school.  She longs for a stable home but has no illusions about her mother’s latest boyfriend, Miller.  He makes a noisy entrance to the commune and spruiks lots of grand plans, but he doesn’t even know enough about farming to recognise that a self-seeded pumpkin vine isn’t going to produce any pumpkins once the summer is over.  He starts projects but lets them lapse, and soon he and Ishtar join the rest of the residents in a fog of inertia, booze and drugs.

The sombre tone of the novel lifts just a little when down by the river one day Silver meets Ian, an outcast like she is.  He becomes a friend, and they have some innocent fun together.  But, subjected to vicious bullying at the school they both go to, Ian shares his strategies for survival because he recognises instantly that Silver will need them too.

‘I have strategies.’ He leaned back on one elbow and gestured with the other hand. ‘Three main ones.  The first is avoidance. Simple.  Keep out of their way.  Know the safe places. Know their movements and plan yours accordingly.;

‘Where are the safe places?’

He held up a finger.  ‘I’ll get to those.  But first, the other strategies.  The next is resilience. You can’t always hide. There will be situations in which you are unable to.’ He paused for a moment and his face darkened. ‘Phys Ed,’ he said in a tense voice.  ‘Changing rooms.  Toilets.’

‘I know what you mean.’

He heaved a sigh.  ‘It’s unavoidable. And when they find you, you just have to endure.  Don’t provoke them. Don’t fight back.  Just put your head down and wait for them to tire of you.’

I swallowed.  This school sounded rough.

Ian was looking at me earnestly.  ‘You think that’s cowardly?  You think I’m weak, not fighting back?’

‘Oh no, I – ‘

He spoke over me.  ‘I’m a realist,’ he said. ‘I plan to survive, and move on.  I have no desire to enter their primitive battles, to engage with them at their level.’

‘I didn’t – ‘

He went on, finger upheld.  ‘And now for the third tactic.  This one is equally as important as the first two, in fact it’s crucial, because it preserves morale.

I waited.

‘Revenge.’ He smiled.  ‘Revenge is very important. Without revenge, you go under.’ (p. 50)

(In its preoccupations, this novel shares many of the characteristics of YA novels.  But at 343 pages, it’s a bit longer than most of the YA novels I’ve come across.)

Well, Silver is already well acquainted with ‘avoidance’ and ‘resilience’ when it comes to being bullied and not just at school.  The adults in this novel are almost universally unkind, from those back at The Path where new mother Ishtar is worked like a skivvy and denied any emotional support, to Val at Hope Farm who takes out her jealousy of beautiful Ishtar with sardonic remarks directed at Silver.   But perhaps worse than their unkindness is their indifference…

Those who last the distance in communal situations tend to be the ones without any strong motivations or ideas of their own.  The leaders – the movers and shakers, the Utopian dreamers – care too much about their visions and are too uncompromising in them to be able, in the long term, to get along with others.  And now when I dredge up the faces of those Hope Farm stayers – Willow; Jindi’s mum, Val who did most of the cooking; the joint-smoking woman and her guitar-playing boyfriend – I imagine I see, in the settled lines in their mouths and the corners of their eyes, and in the way those eyes gaze out, a sort of enduring and strangely contented apathy. (p. 66)

There are teachers who send home notes about the state of Silver’s clothes, her dirty fingernails and her unhealthy frame, but these are ignored.  Nobody takes responsibility for this child, other than the remarkable happenstance that she gets sent to school, where she does well.  This is in marked contrast to Ishtar, whose attempt to explain her life in an exercise book memoir betrays not only her ongoing naïveté but also her problems with literacy.  She writes like a twelve-year-old trying to grapple with adult issues.  Her spelling and punctuation are so poor that she is only ever fit for badly-paid menial work.  Something was obviously badly wrong, even before she became a pregnant teenager,

Predictably, things don’t work out with Miller at Hope Farm, and in a sign of potential self-rehabilitation, Ishtar rejects the attentions of too-good-to-be-true Dan because at last she realises that she needs to build a life of her own that’s independent of men.  The plot builds up to a dramatic climax which fractures everything, and eventually leads to rescue for Silver.  But the damage is done and in adulthood she continues to use the strategies recommended by Ian, avoiding potential hurt, cultivating resilience by enduring loneliness and emotional distance, and yes, in a passive-aggressive way, avenging herself for her mother’s shortcomings.

Hope Farm is compelling, but it’s depressing reading and the way the plot delivers a comeuppance to everyone that’s been ‘mean’ to Silver is a bit childish.  Ishtar’s parents get their just desserts; Miller meets a violent end, and the farm is destroyed by stupidity as much as by the turn of events.   Ishtar herself is despatched when she’s in her forties and the author can’t resist tacking on a suggestion that she brought it on herself.  There’s a grim reality that none of this brings peace to Silver, but the combined effect of all this misery is nihilism.   Hope Farm being the last of the books longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, it only confirms my suspicion that the judges are fixated on novels about dysfunction, grief and misery.

Kim at Reading Matters reviewed it here and so did Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best.  See also Jessica Au at the SMH.

Author: Peggy Frew
Title Hope Farm
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2015
ISBN: 9781925106572
Source: Kingston Library

Availability

Fishpond: Hope Farm
Or direct from Scribe where you can also buy the eBook.


Responses

  1. I think I’d like the commune aspects of this but not so much the bullying (and what I think of as YA issues).

    • I liked the attempt at analysis of the dynamics of communes, and think more could have been done with that if the characters there had been fleshed out a bit more and the story showed their PoV as well. But yes, bullying, family violence and child abuse are everywhere in Australian fiction at the moment.

  2. This ended up being a DNF for me as I just kept getting angrier and angrier at Silver’s mum (being perimenopausal has put me in touch with my inner rage in a way I’ve never experienced before – it’s rather liberating when it’s not overwhelming!) In this case I threw the book across the room in disgust since I couldn’t give Ishtar a piece of my mind!

    Thanks for your review and giving me some hints on how it finished up (I was enjoying Frew’s writing, so may have to try her earlier work instead).

    • LOL, Brona, I think that’s a sign of very powerful characterisation if it made you feel so strongly about it!


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