July 22

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew

While I don’t want to get too ahead of myself, I am pretty sure this is going to be my Book of 2016.

Whoa there, I hear you saying.  Hold those horses – it’s only July.  Well perhaps.  But if I judge a book purely on its ability to keep me reading past midnight completely enthralled, well this one takes the cake, the crown and the title.

I am not alone of course because Hope Farm was both a Miles Franklin Literary Award and  Stella Prize Finalist, something which meant I nearly did not read it because I was seeking some fresh literary blood.   What a mistake that would have been.  Having finished it in the wee hours of this morning, I am left here alone with all the characters buzzing about it my head, and heart, and I can’t help but feel a little lost without them.

The story begins with a teenage Karen who falls pregnant and is promptly and secretly shipped off to a ‘home’ by her parents to have the baby and sign it away for adoption.  But a chance encounter in a park sees Karen meet a group of colourfully adorned ‘hippies’ who both mesmerise and eventually save her.  Karen fights to keep her baby with the support of the commune’s house mother and her new alternative life begins with them.  She becomes Ishtar, named after a warrior Goddess and her baby daughter is named Silver.

The bulk of the novel is set in 1985.  Silver is a now teenager and she arrives cold and weary at Hope Farm, another commune which Ishtar has followed yet another man to.  It is exhausting going.  The alternative life has lost its brilliance and we now just see survivors, bouncing between faint opportunity, desperately seeking freedom but finding falacy.  It is hope and hopelessness in equal measure.

Ishtar and Silver’s relationship is tense and the loneliness and isolation of Silver is palpable, but so too is her strength. Frew creates a finely tuned mother-daughter relationship,  acutely observed and heartbreaking and all you want to do reading this book is to take them both in, care for them and hug darling Silver very, very tight.

The writing is similar to Charlotte Wood for me – and you know how much I love her (and surprise, surprise, this book is set in Australia – see my previous post for explanation).  Both authors have a way of taking you to another world and plonking you right in the middle of it.  You can almost feel the sharp, frosty mornings at the Farm on your breath; taste the smokey residue from the outdoor fires mixed with the incessant dull waft of weed; feel the heavy weight of the homestead, smell its dankness, the mould; whiff the op-shop bedding and clothes, their staleness.  It is a hard life  draped in false promise which Ishtar succumbs to again and again and which Silver eventually revolts.

Frew artfully gives both mother and daughter their voices, in the cleverest of ways.  Two parallel  stories which are tenderly stitched together in the closing pages.  It can’t fully repair the brokeness between them  but there is at last some peace, something that is desperately craved but never found beforehand.

Please grab a copy of Hope Farm.  You won’t regret it I promise- you may just not get much sleep because of it is all.

But that is just my two cents worth.