Men were usually involved, in both the endings and the beginnings. Boyfriends, lovers, partners – whatever they were to her in the varied loose lexicon of circles in which we moved. I can glimpse them still, a collage of faces, mostly bearded, mostly framed with quantities of hair. I can dredge up the sounds of their voices, some of them, or a small physical detail – a bracelet of plaited hair flat strands of copper on a sun-damaged, ginger-haired wrist; a combination of long nose and bushy eyebrows that called to mind the letter ‘T’. But I have no memory of any actual break-ups, of men begging or raging at having been left. I recall no messy scenes. Ishtar was so good at it, I suppose, so practised. She simply withdrew and allowed things to collapse.
Ishtar and her daughter, Silver, go to live on Hope Farm, a commune in Victoria. They’ve moved there from Brisbane because Ishtar is in love with a man named Miller who’s part of the group. Silver’s thirteen but narrates the novel from adulthood, commenting on events.
Silver’s in awe of her mother – She could gild the edges of even miserable, freezing, grey Hope – but hates Miller. Largely, it seems, because he creates a distance between Silver and Ishtar.
I am always just missing her. In passing she might touch me, run a quick hand across my shoulder blades, kiss the top of my head, pull me to her so I feel the brief softness of a breast or the point of a hipbone. And then I am released, as she goes on, and on, to the next thing.
Frew explores the mother/daughter relationship through the two characters. This is largely done from Silver’s viewpoint but there are a number of entries from Ishtar’s diary. These tell her story from the point when she discovers she’s pregnant to a married man who lives on the street she’s growing up on to almost the end of their time at Hope Farm. The entries are written in non-standard grammar and bring a different perspective to Ishtar, particularly with regards to her own parents and how she’s come to live in a series of communes.
You would think I would have learnt some thing over all those years but now here I was at Hope and in a worse situation than ever before you could almost laugh it was so predictable. Some times I could just about hear my mothers voice saying I knew youd end up coming to nothing having no pride being taken advantage of there was always some thing wrong with you. Nothing to laugh about there. And nothing to do but keep going.
Alongside the story of Ishtar and Miller’s relationship – one that becomes increasingly complex as the story unwinds – is Silver’s friendship with a local boy, Ian. Ian attends the same school as Silver will and they bond over tips as to how to avoid the bullies. They meet every day after school and at the weekend by the creek midway between Hope Farm and Ian’s parents’ farm. As tension in the commune rises, Ian offers Silver a means of escape, one that might be more permanent than it first appears.
Hope Farm considers the control men can exert over women, mother/daughter relationships, communal living, freedom and friendship. Tension runs throughout the novel building to a gripping conclusion. A book well worthy of its Stella Prize and Miles Franklin Award shortlistings.
I’m delighted to welcome Peggy Frew to the blog to discuss the novel further.
In Hope Farm you explore two difficult mother/daughter relationships and how that bond can frame your life; what drew you to the subject?
Families have always interested me, and particularly the matter of parental responsibility. Funnily enough, I began Hope Farm with the aim of writing a book that wasn’t particularly domestic. My first book, House of Sticks, is from the point of view of a mother of very young children, someone whose world has suddenly shrunk; it has an atmosphere that’s close, almost claustrophobic, and by the time I’d finished with it, I was dying to break out and write something that felt freer, more open. House of Sticks was set in an inner-city suburb and so I thought I’d set Hope Farm in the country. I should have known I wouldn’t get very far away from families, because the first two characters to arrive in my head were Silver and Ishtar, a mother and daughter, and soon enough I realised I was writing another book about motherhood. So this is clearly my territory, and I suspect I haven’t finished yet! I continue to find it fascinating, probably because I am both a daughter and a mother myself.
One of the key themes of the book is the power and control men can exert on women’s lives; was this something you wanted to explore from the outset or did it emerge in the telling of Ishtar’s story?
Not to imply that we can all now rest on our laurels as far as feminism is concerned – clearly there’s still a lot of work left to be done before women everywhere have equal rights to men – but I do think this question relates to the time in which the book is set. While the 1970s was a time of radical social change in Australia, and the second wave of feminism was a huge part of that, I was interested to look at what it was like for women within the hippie subculture, which, while questioning many social norms, I don’t believe was especially progressive when it came to women’s rights. So in Australia in the 70s, you could ‘drop out’, you could join a commune or live in an ashram, but if you were a women you would probably still find yourself expected to do much of the traditional ‘women’s work’. So for a character like Ishtar, who escapes her oppressively religious family and sets out to make a life for herself within the world of hippies, she is really only moving from one world in which men are in charge to another. Also, she is uneducated, poor, young, and all she has to trade on are her good looks. She is really up against it. Not sure if this answers your question! But yes, it all did emerge in the telling of Ishtar’s story – all I knew at the beginning was what kind of a mother she was to Silver, so I had to figure out her back-story in order to account for that.
The diary sections of the novel read like a young person’s complete with spelling mistakes, a lack of apostrophes and incorrect use of homophones. In a world seemingly obsessed with homogeny and ‘correct’ grammar, did you come up against any opposition to this?
Interesting question! I didn’t know the world was obsessed with grammar – I thought it was a dying art! No, I didn’t come up against any opposition. These sections – Ishtar’s writings – were written very quickly, and with the lack of punctuation you see in the finished book, as well as the run-on sentences and poor grammar. The spelling though was intact. My editor then suggested that we needed another element to give the sense of a semi-illiterate voice, so we agreed on a few ‘rules’ for misspelled words, and applied them. We were trying to strike a balance between something that was believable but also readable. Obviously if I’d written it exactly like a ‘real’ journal written by someone with an undiagnosed learning difficulty who didn’t finish high school it would probably be very difficult to read, the same way that books would be really boring if authors wrote dialogue the way people actually speak.
Hope Farm is a tense novel, it feels from the outset that the story’s on the verge of tipping into something big and it does for several of the characters; how did you go about weaving that tension throughout the book?
The book began with the setting and the two main characters. But it also began with a feeling, a sense of unease. It took me a while to find the voice that worked best, and I think the voice I eventually found – a retrospective first-person voice – fitted with that sense of unease. Here is a narrator who’s looking back on a time in their life, and they’re saying to the reader, ‘I’m going to tell you a story, about something that changed me forever.’ You know something big is coming, and you know this narrator has been profoundly affected by it, and there’s something in the tone of that style of narrative – a sense of inevitability perhaps – that I think creates tension. Plot has never been my strong point, so I worked very hard at the plot once I had the voice and the characters, and if the way the plot works helps with the tension then that’s great, but I can’t say that was what I set out to do – the plot, for me, was born out of the feeling of unease, the questions I was asking myself: who are these people, how have they gotten to where they are, and what’s going to happen to them now to get them to that ending I can vaguely see there on the horizon?
My blog focuses on women writers; who are your favourite women writers? Are there any Australian writers we should be seeking out?
Some of my favourite writers who happen to be women are Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Jean Rhys, Marilynne Robinson, Katherine Mansfield, Joyce Carol Oates and Janet Frame. Some Australian writers I’d recommend (and who also belong in the first category) are Helen Garner, Mireille Juchau, Tegan Bennett-Daylight, Josephine Rowe, Joan London, Gillian Mears and MJ Hyland.
A huge thank you to Peggy Frew for the Q&A and to Scribe for the review copy of the novel. There will be more Hope Farm content on the following blogs throughout the week.