Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 6, 2017

This Water: Five Tales, by Beverley Farmer

This Water: Five Tales by Melbourne author Beverley Farmer (b. 1941), is a collection of three novellas and two short stories, linked by exquisite images of water and harrowing musings on loss, reminiscent of Farmer’s preoccupations in a previous collection called A Body of Water (see my review).  But age mellows this collection, and the elemental forms of water and stone, ice and fire, light and darkness give the writing a mythic quality.  Yes, in the wake of my reading of Contemporary Fiction, A Very Short Introduction, I am mindful that this collection of tales shows that fiction can indeed take any form it likes.

The stories which bookend the work were the most vivid to me.  The last story, ‘The Ice Bride’ is chilling not because the bride lives in a palace of ice, but because she is imprisoned there, sheltered from the real world and learning only to see the world as her husband desires.  As the fairy tale progresses, the reader recognises the horror of the prison before she does, and the tension mounts as love and paternalistic affection is withdrawn when she unwittingly transgresses.  Like Eve, the Ice Bride wants to know and understand more, while he wants only to shape her in his own image of perfection.

He first came into being for her when he appeared and took her in his arms.  She spoke her first ever words: What are you?

He kissed her.  I am the Master of Snow and Ice, he said, and you are my bride, my masterpiece, a paragon of bridehood in the making.  I have much to reveal to you now that we are married.  The vows, the rules I have bound you with, our mutual duties, are those of fidelity, patience, honesty, devotion, trust.  In the fullness of time you will also know by heart the bonds of silence, absence and solitude. 

I see, she said, and he smiled, knowing better, and kissed her again.  Have no fear.  It will come more easily as you are perfected. (p.196)

I bet there’s not a woman reading this who isn’t repelled by this declaration that he will master her.  The palace is not like those dingy cellars we have seen in the media, places that men have used to lock women away for decades for their own warped pleasure; shimmering and glittering in its icy spaces, the palace resonates more like the Beast’s castle with a labyrinth of winding paths and locked doors.  But this is a fairy tale without a happy ending.  The gold ring he places on her finger is an everlasting presence that weighs on her and she is like the bee she finds trapped in a prison of amber in his room of precious stones…

(Strange, isn’t it, that there are top-rating so-called reality programs such as The Bachelor (or is it Bachelorette?) which feature women competing with each other to fit the image of the perfect woman?  What on earth are these women thinking???)

A wedding ring also features in the first story A Ring of Gold.  An old woman on the windswept south coast of Victoria finds a ring in the shallows.  She has been married but widowed for a long time.  Her life has contracted to simple, elemental forms, living a life of melancholy loss:

All along the shore the flimsy weatherboard, weather-beaten houses look out to sea, beached, stranded.  Life is short enough at any age anywhere, over in no time.  This has always been a house of hollow spaces and echoes and her heart is not in it.  Drifts of cobweb and fallen hair, dry moths, fluff, lie like shadows on every surface.  They belong as she does, no more, no less, as frail and as constant.  Her windows, whether or not they get the sun, are smeared outside with dust and cobwebs and still the mirrors inside under their nap of dust bring the windows in and double the light.  Moving from mirror to mirror she is someone who looks as if she has seen a ghost, greedy for light.  Otherwise she is frugal, saving her strength, never missing meals, doing her chores, living for summer time.  Never a big eater, she lives all year round on potatoes, grain foods and pulses, salads, eggs and cheese, fish, stone fruit in summer and in autumn grapes, apples, last oozings.  A paradox in a nutshell is a stone fruit.  Nothing goes to waste.  Everything does.

[…]

After a lifetime with her nose in books, reading was making her eyes fail and she has given it up, content with whatever scraps from once upon a time come floating back on the tide over the quaking membrane of the days – loose as the skin on a rock pool – as she makes her way, reading the signs, falling into place, tiding things over as she used to do in a book at bedtime before she could read, falling asleep.  (p. 60)

She takes the ring to the police station, where it remains unclaimed, so the above property becomes hers.  But she does not know what to do with it…

… she is never going to wear it and yet selling it has become unthinkable; she would as soon have sold her real, her own wedding ring.  Losing it was one thing, selling it, never. (p.46)

Having only vague childhood memories of the legend of the Silkie, I floundered a bit when reading A Ring of Gold and I found its fragmented form disorientating until – by coincidence – I read Joe’s review at Rough Ghosts of an entirely different book: Plats by John Trefry. Joe writes that Plats is non-narrative, language driven, and constrained and he goes on to say that:

In this kind of literary environment, the reader sets the terms of engagement. One can drift across the text, engage and disengage, listen to the language, watch the flickering scenes pass. If there is meaning to be discerned, it will be dependent on the experiential context that an individual brings to the reading.

Taking Joe’s counsel is a good way to read A Ring of Gold. This is a novella that will be interpreted differently by readers of different ages and genders…

My recent reading of Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree – which draws on Iranian myths – has made me mindful that in our multicultural society our Australian authors can draw on heritages of myth and legend from all over the world.  Celtic and Greek legends inform three of Farmer’s stories which are passionate expressions of grief and rage against oppressive power: ‘This Water’,  ‘The Blood Red of her Silks’ and ‘Tongue of Blood’ (a lament by Clytemnestra).

These are stories which linger, disconcertingly, in the mind.  They are all love stories in their way, with romance stripped away.

Beverley Farmer was the recipient in 2009 of the Patrick White Award.  Her works include short story collections: Snake (1982); Milk (1983); Home Time (1985) and Collected Stories (1987); and her novels include Alone (1980) The Seal Woman (1992); and The House in the Light (1995). She has also published A Body of Water: A Year’s Notebook (1990) (see my review) and a collection of essays called The Bone House (2005).  These books are not easy to find but on the day I looked Fishpond had quite a few available as second hand copies.  (BTW There is a Kindle edition listed at Goodreads, but I couldn’t find any details about it at Giramondo.)

#Update 7/8/17 Nick from Giramondo has clarified the eBook situation.  Yes, Five Tales is available in a Kindle edition, and is updating the links on the Giramondo website, but in the meantime you can find it at Amazon using the search box and either the title/author or its number: B073W74X4X

See also reviews in the print media at the Giramondo website.

Author: Beverley Farmer
Title: This Water: Five Tales
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2017
ISBN: 9781925336313
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo

Available from Fishpond: This Water: Five Tales


Responses

  1. I look forward to reading this Lisa. And will look out for her short story collections. In fact there’s a second hand book store next to the cafe I’m in right now!

    • My library doesn’t often let me down but they don’t have a single one of her books. So yes, it’s the secondhand trail for me…

  2. There’s something for us to look forward to: After a lifetime of reading, her eyes fail and she has given it up … content with whatever scraps etc. Not sure about that “content”, though I guess there’s always audio books.

    • Yes, I shuddered too. Nothing I read about old age makes me want to go there…

  3. This sounds a little like Angela Carter’s reworking of fairy tales & myths with a feminist spin. Powerful.

    • Or Margaret Atwood, as in the Penelopiad.

  4. I love how you benefited from that extract in Joe’s review to allow another perspective of the Ring story, how serendipitous!

    • I love that he (and other bloggers too) are teaching me how to read in different ways, and to be alert to alternative possibilities. A while I ago I reviewed Damon Young’s book about reading, where he talks about how mature reading involves reading in different ways, and Eaglestone’s book about contemporary fiction says the same thing. If you start with the assumption that the author who’s confusing you intended for the writing to be the way that it is, then instead of dismissing the book as a muddle, it’s up to the reader to approach it differently.
      Not that it’s always easy, of course!

      • Yes, it’s the letting go of expectation to be open to new possibilities, sometimes for that happens easily and other times not so, it’s like looking at some artist’s works as well, learning to see differently.

        • I find it hardest to do with music. I’m a bit of a stick-in-the-mud with contemporary music (anything from the 1980s onwards, really).

  5. I was a big fan of Beverley Farmer in the 80s, after reading Hometime and The house in the light. She’s a good short story writer, and I remember enjoying her descriptions of life as a woman in rural (I think I’m right here) Greece. It was the early days of multiculturalism in Australia and reading about experiences of other cultures was wonderful.

    Then after the 90s she rather disappeared, and whenever I’ve thought of the writers I read and enjoyed in the 80s – Jolley, Masters, Adams, Mears – I would think of her and wonder what happened to her. It’s exciting to hear that she has another book out.

    • Yes, Greece is right, she went there after she was married but it didn’t work out…
      I wish my library had some of her novels!

      • Yes, that was my memory – it didn’t work out so she returned to Melbourne. I don’t know if my library does, and I don’t think I do either. I read Council of Adult Education copies, which is why I often stumble over which titles I read but I think I got it right.

        • Yes, I stumble over some of mine too: I had a long period of time where a friend and I shared our books at once weekly dinners, so I have quite a lot of books in my memory that I don’t have a copy of…


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