Parenthood is no simple or straight road, and long after birth there exists, still, symbiosis between parent and child. Peggy Frew's novel Hope Farm dParenthood is no simple or straight road, and long after birth there exists, still, symbiosis between parent and child. Peggy Frew's novel Hope Farm deftly explores the consequences of youthful decisions, the effect of silence on love, and how a parent can represent home to a child.
Thirteen-year-old Silver Landes is used to moving around between ashram and commune with her young, single mother Ishtar, but that doesn't stop her from yearning to have her mother to herself, and a place of their own - to just stop for long enough to have a real home. The move to Hope Farm in central Gippsland, Victoria is just the most recent dislocation in young Silver's life, another grand idea that Ishtar has bought into, another new man that Ishtar is following. This time it's a man Silver only knows as Miller: thirty-six, bearded and large, he sweeps her mother up in his plans for the hippie 'commune' of Hope Farm, a run-down property rented by an odd mix of ageing hippies who have become increasingly jaded. Ishtar hands over her savings to Miller to buy a car, which he registers in his own name, and then Silver accompanies her mother on the train while Miller uses the car to get new supplies for the farm.
While Ishtar disappears into Miller's possessive, intense and narcissistic embrace, Silver is - as always - left to fend for herself. She befriends fourteen-year-old Ian, a neighbour, though the constant bullying he receives at school creates a darkness in him that Silver begins to glimpse, and is scared by. She is also scared of Miller, with his complete possession of her mother and his pornographic and violent drawing hanging over the bed that clearly show his fatherhood aim. With the arrival of a surprise guest on the farm, this temporary home is further shaken and Silver is drawn along in the adults' wake, heading towards disaster.
Silver's narration of this period in her life comes from decades later, as a middle-aged woman still haunted by events and the emptiness and loneliness left by her mother. Her silent, pent-up rage and impotent hopes are clearly drawn, sharper-edged by time and honestly come by. Ishtar - as we learn from her own poorly-spelt journal writings that intersperse Silver's narration - was only sixteen when she fell pregnant, and completely ignorant of how it happened. Living in an ordinary suburb in Queensland with religious parents in the 70s, her mother's reaction is predictable and acutely heart-breaking: she is furious, and keenly aware of the shame that Ishtar will bring to her family. Ishtar has seen what happened to another girl who was in the same situation, around whom judgements and opinions still collect, and is passively swept up in her mother's plan. She is taken to Brisbane, to a home for girls like her; after the baby is born she will sign it away for adoption and return home, all in secret. But at the home she learns from another girl who has been there before that she has a choice, and Ishtar takes it.
The repercussions of Ishtar's choice are just as hard on her as they are on Silver, in the long term. Her mother refuses to see her again, leaving Ishtar to live without support or guidance in an ashram, with the people who helped her. At such a young age, Ishtar - who took that name to replace her own when she started living there - has to give up the remains of her childhood and work for no personal gain. She loves her baby dearly, but feels increasingly guilty for the noise the baby makes, and for loving her so much. Soon, depression takes hold of her and she grows colder towards her child.
Finally when I went to bed she was still awake she must have been feeling better because she laughed and reached out her arms but all I wanted was sleep. I looked in to her face and no warm feeling came. I lay down with my back to her. She cuddled up to me and touched my hair but I lay like a block of concrete, there was this heavy sadness and some where deep under everything I wanted to break the spell and turn over and face her, it felt like an important thing to do but I just couldnt. I didnt move or make a sound and after a while she left me alone. And after that it was like some thing had broken and I couldnt fix it, I seemed to feel more and more tired like the love had been buried under the tiredness and every night I turned my back on her I lay there but I could never fall asleep because of the sad feeling I just lay listening to her breathing until she fell asleep. [p.146]
The moves begin: she finds a man and moves to his commune, then moves to another ashram to escape, and so on. Her relationship with Silver becomes rote and silent, and while there are things about Ishtar that Silver has always known - like what her real name is - there are bigger things that Ishtar never speaks about, and Silver has no words for her mother's moods, and no one to turn to.
The consequences of shaming girls and women about their bodies, the secretiveness associated with sex and pregnancy and the judgemental attitudes of others all play their part in ruining Silver's relationship with her mother. I'm not sure that we've come all that far since, though at least we don't pack girls off to wait out their pregnancy in hiding, away from the neighbours' eyes. This happened to my own mother, who wasn't in a position to marry when she accidentally got pregnant, and who was sent off to a home run by nuns in Melbourne, and treated like she wasn't even human. Unlike Ishtar, though, my mother's story had a happy ending: she and the father - my father - did marry and start a family, and the baby they had to give up for adoption came back to us and is just as much part of the family, and loved, as the rest of us. The point remains, though, of what we do to each other in the process, and the unnecessary pain and feelings of being unloved it brings. For Silver, love for her mother is the emotion she has long buried. She feels like a burden, and the silence between the two only exacerbates this.
The irony in the name 'Hope Farm' is inescapable, and encompasses not only the dead dreams of the hippies who hoped to live self-sufficiently but who now work in factories in the nearby towns, smoking pot and aimlessly strumming the guitar when at home. It also highlights the hope that fills Ishtar, temporarily, with energy, and the hope that has long been suppressed within Silver but that surges up when the two find themselves living in a decrepit old miner's cottage that, at best, resembles a cubby-house with its shabby, makeshift furniture and lack of amenities (like a toilet). It is there that Silver's dream, her one real desire to live with Ishtar, just the two of them, in a place of their own is finally, but partly, realised. Ishtar falls into her worst depression yet, and the only upside is that she turns away Miller.
Miller is the character who wasn't quite realised for me, or not in the way that he was for Silver. It wasn't until towards the end of the book that I even realised that Silver saw him as a monster - this just didn't quite come across to me. I certainly didn't like him, and his brutishness - captured in the descriptions of his hair and size, the way he 'claims' Ishtar in a physical way - was exceptionally unappealing, but I didn't fear him. I didn't realise that Silver feared him. It could partly be because, as engaging and readable as this is, I had a lot of interruptions and took about two weeks to read it; those interruptions can make it hard to feel the tension and threat. Tension was another aspect that I didn't genuinely feel: Silver directly foreshadows the impending disaster when she tells us that they were all on a "collision course", but the only tension I felt was when Ian showed her the abandoned mine shaft and she was, rightly, spooked, and things were never quite so easy between them again. The tension was in wondering what role the mine shaft would play in the story, and knowing that it would. But that tension didn't grip me, certainly not in the way I want it to, or the way the novel implies I should have been. Still, his effect is made clear:
I glanced at Ishtar's one suitcase and duffel bag sitting in the corner. They looked their usual compact, neat selves, but even they were being encroached on by the huge, looming tide that was Miller's mess - and her bedspread, crumpled down at the foot of the mattress, appeared more worn that I remembered, and smaller. I turned slowly in the small central clearing. So much stuff. As if he conjured it with his hands, brought it bouncing and skittering into his orbit, to then fly along in his wake like iron filings following a magnet. Into my mind came the twin images of Miller lifting Ishtar and putting her into the car, and then lifting and carrying her into the room at the ashram - her yielding body, her transformed face. Then I saw him raising Jindi towards the night sky. The power in those arms, and the speed with which they snatched something up - a body, a whole person - and then just as quickly let it go again. [p.90]
This is, undoubtedly, a sad novel. The sadness is in the sense of nostalgia that is vividly and realistically imagined, and in the disconnect between Silver and her mother, between a young girl desperately wanting to love her mother, and a mother trying to live life as if she weren't one. There is sadness in the dinginess and squalour of Hope Farm, in the painful, lonely and unloved nature of Silver's coming-of-age story. I came close to loving this novel, and in many ways I do love it: it is superbly written, even if the hoped-for tension wasn't quite there for me; it is memorable in its realism; and it is easy to connect to and empathise with, from the rural living 'out bush', which reminded me of where I grew up in central-north Tasmania, to the painful school bus rides and, most especially, the simple, unfulfilled hopes of Silver Landes, whose past - and especially her time at Hope Farm in 1985 - shaped her just as Ishtar's did, and not for the better.
This story will stay with me, as all well-written novels do that work on multiple levels, rich with symbolism and hidden layers just waiting to be unpacked. Above it all, I am left with this strong sense of familiarity, almost as if I had read this novel before, heard this story told another, earlier time - and I think this is not because it's a cliché, or Frew has ripped off some other book, but because it is such a human story, one that can speak to me and the girl that still lives inside me, suppressed maybe, but who - despite having had the loving family and stable home that Silver so yearns for - can still empathise with that hope and desire precisely because it is so vital. And because that sense of isolation and loneliness that Silver feels is so reminiscent of that period of our lives when we straddle childhood and adolescence. Frew writes with an openness that leaves me feeling vulnerable as I read, which directly relates to my ability to empathise with Silver. Mistakes are made on both sides, life is messy, and love is fragile and easily smothered....more