Hope Farm by Peggy Frew review: a child’s unrequited love in a hippie hell
This atmospheric novel explores hippie living and maternal neglect in 1980s Australia
After last month’s excellent debut, My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal, the subject of maternal neglect returns this week in Peggy Frew’s second novel, the ironically titled Hope Farm. Whereas de Waal’s story focused on the salvation of a young boy abandoned by his mother, Frew’s book sees an adult daughter look back on the year when the threadbare relationship with her mother eventually snapped.
It is 1985 and 13-year-old Silver has been brought by mother Ishtar to Hope Farm, a dilapidated commune in Kooralang, Victoria, run by disgruntled hippies. Since infancy Silver has been shunted around various ashrams and communes as Ishtar tries to outrun the depression that set in when she gave birth to her daughter at 17 and was subsequently disowned by her family.
The hippie world of Hope Farm is vividly evoked by Frew’s atmospheric writing and Silver’s sharp eye. It is a lawless and creepy environment for a young girl. Left to her own devices by Ishtar, Silver endures the hippie talk of love and kindness, but poignantly receives none of it from her mother. Instead she learns to fend for herself, from the mortification of getting her first period outside in the dark, a torch shone on her by a male guest, to dealing with the “Hippie Shit” barbs of her classmates in the local school in Tarrina, to living among a predominantly adult community where drugs and sex are rampant and “everyone plodded around under the weight of the type of resentment that comes with unacknowledged compromise.”
Painful and nuanced, Silver’s story is one of loving and not being loved back. Deeper themes question the effectiveness of memory. From her position decades later as a single woman who never had children herself, Silver wonders “how much I have since manufactured with my retrospective preoccupations.” A fitting epigraph from Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye establishes the subject: “You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water.”
Broken into sections – before and after, summer and winter – there is a sense of foreboding throughout Hope Farm. Published last year, the novel has been shortlisted for the 2016 Myles Franklin Award, whose winner is announced next month. From Melbourne, Frew’s debut, House of Sticks, won the 2010 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. Its subject matter also concerned parenthood, from the perspective of a new mother transitioning into the role and eventually finding hope.
The proposal is inverted in Frew’s second book. The only hope for Silver is to unshackle herself from a selfish mother who lugs her daughter around like an unwanted heirloom she can’t bring herself to part with. The rawness of this relationship is mined by Frew, who is interested in how much it takes for the bond between mother and daughter to break.
Despite 12 years of neglect, Silver’s world orbits around her mother, attuned to every mood, predicting when they’ll have to move again: “I just saw it coming in Ishtar, in the flattening of her voice and movements, the dulling of her colours.” Silver’s predicament as the younger, helpless party is evident, the decision-making about their lives “as far outside the realm of my control as the weather”. Ishtar calls the shots, basing everything around a chronic need to be admired. Beautiful and petulant, she bounces from one man to the next, until falling for the grotesque Miller and allowing him to install her in Hope Farm.
It is the worst home yet for Silver, freezing and unwelcoming. She sleeps in a dank bedroom, “curled like a slater” on a damp mattress. Constantly hungry, she is witness to LSD parties and her mother being mauled by Miller. That Silver remains so grounded amid the chaos is remarkable.
Ishtar’s own story about seventies Australia and how it treated unmarried mothers is given through the conceit of a diary. The sections are unartfully incorporated and lack the depth of Silver’s expressions, though Ishtar’s isolated and work-weary existence for the initial years of her daughter’s life do go some way to explaining her decision to cut herself off: “Turn around I told myself, kiss her love her but it was like I was paralised.”
In a book that is more evocative than plot driven, the story slowly builds to a point where Silver eventually snaps. Along with her outcast friend Ian, she seeks to destory the unruly adult world. The drama that unfolds is believable but lacks the punch of reckoning that many readers will feel Ishtar deserves. Instead, as always, it is Silver who will shoulder the burden, a child who has grown up carrying the weight of an adult on her back. There is a lovely moment where Silver articulates this in her quiet way, as Ishtar tries to bring her on another unwanted journey: “It’s what you want,” I said. “It’s not what I want.”