‘Hope Farm’ by Peggy Frew

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew

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.

In 2012, Peggy Frew was kind enough to participate in Triple Choice Tuesday on this blog. You can read her choices here.

This is my 15th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 11th for #AWW2016.

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.

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13 thoughts on “‘Hope Farm’ by Peggy Frew

  1. My feelings about this book were much the same as yours (actually, you were a little more generous than me!). I finished it thinking I didn’t learn anything new or take away any particular message. The online Twitter discussion about this book (as part of the Stella Book Club) was interesting – seems a lot of people loved it for its depiction of mother/daughter relationships and the descriptions of place. I thought the relationships aspect was interesting (although some of the better elements of the story were underdone such as Ishtar’s relationship with her own mother) – all good but not exceptional or memorable. As for the scene setting, not my style at all – I felt it was overworked and too descriptive but appreciate that’s simply a reflection on my taste.

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    • Apologies for delay in responding to this comment, Kate! It arrived just before I headed off to Ireland for a week… and then I promptly forget about it. But glad to hear your feelings about his book mirrored mine. I thought it was an entertaining read, but nothing particularly exceptional. I certainly don’t think it’s prize-winning material. The mother/daughter relationship is well done, but I’m not sure it’s really about that: the main focus is coming-of-age during a certain time/place and lifestyle.

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      • Since leaving this comment I’ve started reading the Jachau – very surprised that there are two books with similar (same) settings/ themes/ plot points on the Stella shortlist. Bit disappointed TBH – would have liked to see more diversity.

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