Fiction – Kindle edition; Scribe; 262 pages; 2015.
In 2011, I read Peggy Frew’s debut novel, House of Sticks, and very much enjoyed the tale of a young woman juggling motherhood and a messy domestic life with her return to the music business. Her second novel, Hope Farm, published in Australia last year, looks at parenthood from a different angle: that of a 13-year-old girl being brought up in the 1980s by a single mother living in a hippy commune.
Two lives, two stories intertwined
The tale is told from two perspectives: Silver, who is an intelligent child in awe of her beautiful mother, and Ishtar, who fell pregnant as a teenager at a time when having children out of wedlock was frowned upon. Their narratives are intertwined but begin at completely different times: Silver is now an adult looking back on her life; Ishtar’s story comes in the form of “diary entries” which date from the 1970s and move forward.
The story, however, is largely about Silver, who moves from place to place with her mother, as the pair seek shelter in a variety of ashrams and communes, mainly in Queensland. When Ishtar falls in love with an enigmatic man called Miller, the trio move to a commune in rural Victoria. Here, Silver goes to a local high school, where she is picked on for being a “hippy”, and befriends another bullied teenager, the old-before-his-time Ian, whom she secretly hangs out with after hours.
Life in the commune, which is named Hope Farm, is relatively stable (despite the drug-taking and the alcohol consumption), but there are domestic complications when Miller’s ill wife moves in. For the first time, Silver must confront the idea that her mother is far from perfect and does not always have her daughter’s best interests at heart. When she begins to see the adults around her behaving badly, Silver realises that her once safe, if slightly unconventional world, could potentially come crashing down around her…
Great characters, detail and pacing
Admittedly, as much as I enjoyed this novel, I’m struggling to say much about it in this review. Yes, the characterisation is very good — Silver feels very much like a child on the cusp of adulthood whom you want to protect and Ishtar is annoyingly selfish but “lost” in a way that she doesn’t even seem to understand — and the narrative is a good balance of evocative detail (capturing both the period and the setting), pace and dialogue. The voices of the two lead characters are also strong and distinctive (I particularly liked the way in which Ishar’s lack of education is reflected in her grammatical errors and often stilted English).
But there’s something about the story that never quite rings true — perhaps it’s Ishtar’s family, who so cruelly cut her off when she has her baby and never reveal her secret to Ishtar’s younger sibling, or maybe it’s the way in which Miller is written out of the story in a way that seems false? Whatever the case, and as much as I got caught up in the relationship between mother and daughter, and had my heart-strings pulled by both characters for different reasons, Hope Farm left me with a so what? feeling at the end.
It has been shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize, so it will be interesting to see if the judges see more to this book than I did. It’s a good read — about motherhood, childhood bonds, alternative lifestyles, societal expectations and sexual relationships — but it’s not an exceptional one.
This book will published in paperback in the UK on 9 June. If you can’t wait that long, the Kindle edition is already available in both the UK and US.