HOPE FARM by Peggy Frew

hopefarm sml

Hope Farm explores the mother-daughter relationship between Ishtar and Silver in the unique setting of life spent on the fringes in Australian ashrams and communes. Thirteen-year-old Silver and her mother, Ishtar, live in a Brisbane ashram. Ishtar, prone to fits of boredom with the drudgery of everyday life and dead end partners, gives in to the thrill of having a new lover, Miller, and a new life at Hope Farm, a commune in Gippsland Victoria.

Hope Farm isn’t the vibrant, self-sustaining, wondrous life on the land that Miller promised. Instead Ishtar finds herself broke after buying Miller a car and funding the trip to Hope Farm. Silver finds herself surrounded by a group of bitter and apathetic adult hippies who aren’t living by the values they preach. She is unimpressed by her new surroundings:

‘…Hope was far and away the most uncomfortable, ugliest, and most depressing place we’d ever lived, with the most flaccid, uninspiring residents…’

Ishtar is caught up in her own search for personal happiness. Silver, left to her own devices in a life with no boundaries, resorts to attempting to look after herself.  Beautiful and sensual, Ishtar is accustomed to being the centre of men’s attention. Conflict and jealousy simmers among several of the women at the commune over Miller and Ishtar, and the sexual tension they create. Dan, a young new arrival to the commune, draws Ishtar’s attentions, further fanning the fires of tension. The arrival of Miller’s wife has explosive consequences.

Silver desperately searches for a sense of normality among the liberated attitudes and actions of the hippies. She befriends Ian, a boy who lives on a nearby farm. Ian is awkward, introverted and savagely bullied at school. He channels his energies into photography and planning revenge on his bullies. Ian and Silver form a friendship that’s strictly out of school only, and they roam the nearby countryside together after school and on weekends. As Silver struggles with life at Hope Farm, she also wrestles with the emotional turmoil of being thirteen, of her body changing, and her affections for Dan. All Silver really wants is to have a home shared with just her mother, to be a family of just the two of them. And maybe Dan. Her yearning for this one thing is tangible and heartbreaking.

We gain glimpses into Ishtar’s earlier life, how she first came to be at an Ashram in Brisbane, through flashbacks that are alternated throughout the current day story. This device adds depth to Ishtar’s character and allows us to see many of the motivations behind her actions.

Peggy Frew’s novel turns a sharp eye onto a young girl cast adrift and left to wrestle alone with becoming a woman in a world over which she has no control. An absorbing read, this beautifully written book conveys the ache and longing experienced by both mother and daughter, whilst simultaneously exploring the impact of an unconventional childhood and the devastating repercussions a parent’s actions can have on their child.

Rating:  4/5

aww2017-badge

List of Awards

2017 International Dublin Literary Award – Longlisted

2016 Barbara Jefferis Award – Winner

2016 Miles Franklin Award – Shortlisted

2016 Stella Prize – Shortlisted

2016 Indie Book Awards – Shortlisted

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew (Scribe Publications 2015), ISBN (e-book) 9781925113778

Advertisements

THE RIVER HOUSE by Janita Cunnington

TheRiverHouse1 copy

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that struck such a deep note of nostalgia in me. The River House stirred awake in me long-forgotten teenage memories of days spent at the beach swimming in a teal blue ocean, of that same ocean turbulent with steely grey waves capped with white froth that skittered up the beach during an approaching storm, of the vibrantly alive bushland that made up the areas surrounding Maroochydore and Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast.

Perhaps I’m not looking hard enough, but I find it rare to find a book of this calibre that brings Queensland coastal areas to life in such a rich and fervent way. (Readers, if you have suggestions for other titles about Queensland that I should read, post your ideas in the comments section below).

But, it’s not just my personal nostalgia that makes this a good book. Janita Cunnington has crafted a richly evocative novel about growing up, about life spent on the river and near the ocean, about the passing of time and how just as the river’s path changes, meanders, sandbars appear and disappear, and deep channels are cut by the flow of the ocean and currents, so too life changes, there are bumps in the road, and at times all we take for granted is swept away.

The story begins in the late 1940s with four-year-old Laurie Carlyle immersed in an endless summer at the family’s river house, on the banks of the Broody River, near the small holiday town of Baroodibah. For young Laurie, the river house is a place of enjoyment, a wonderland of sights and smells, plants, animals and sea creatures.

“The wind made the tents across the river flap gaily. Sometimes it blew so strongly they all clapped their canvas sides as if they were an audience and they liked the show. Laurie liked it too: the river patched with lime and mauve; the boats bucking at their anchors; the white frill of the surf on the bar; the she-oaks sighing; the sea howling distantly; the pelicans getting up above the wind as high as small aeroplanes, up into the blue.”

But something happens at the river house that summer that changes things in the family. A crack in the family unit slowly grows longer and deeper as the years pass by. During this time the Carlyle families live in Brisbane but holiday on the Sunshine Coast, at the fictional Baroodibah, which involves long road trips from the city up through the Glasshouse Mountains, and to Nambour, past sugar cane fields and bushland. The one constant in Laurie’s life, through her teen years, young adulthood and then motherhood is the river house and all the nostalgic memories it holds for her. When her brother, Tony, deeply in debt, threatens to sell it, Laurie is devastated. She’s not ready to let go of the river house; she always imagined it would be there forever. But, nothing lasts forever, and ultimately she is faced with losing that which she loves most dearly.

The River House spans from Laurie’s early childhood through to 2005, when she is a grandmother. This timeframe is handled well, with fragments of Laurie and her family’s lives swelling to the fore and then receding again. Throughout is an underlying tension of dreams lost, of desires never quite fulfilled, which are balanced by achievements, trips back to the river house, reconnection with the river, and of love lost and renewed. The narration ebbs and flows, and meanders, much like the flow of the river or the tide of the ocean, and this makes for captivating reading.

There is one section that drags on a bit, when Laurie and Tony are in university and Tony develops strong political ideals and these ideals are discussed in detail with much fervour. But then, perhaps that’s the point? To highlight the depths of passion that politics can trigger in people, and for some it becomes their life mission. It also sets up Tony’s character for who he becomes later in life, and so while the political detail was a little much for me, it serves a valid purpose. The one area that baffled me a bit was that Laurie’s son, Vit, gets very little airtime compared to his younger sister, Cora. But then, he’s a bit of a disappointment and so perhaps his absence is purposefully constructed to this end. For me, these observations are mere trifles, and certainly do no detract from the power and beauty of the overall story.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed The River House, its charm, its vivid descriptions and the compelling story of Laurie’s life as seen through her eyes.

Rating:          4/5

The River House by Janita Cunnington (Bantam 2016)

ISBN: 9780143780182

NOTE: I received my copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

image

Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2015 – Wrap up

This is the second year that I have participated in the AWWC and not only did I exceed my nominated level, I thoroughly enjoyed every book that I read.

I committed myself to the Miles Challenge – to read 6 books and write reviews for at least 4 books.

I am happy to say that I read 9 books, and wrote reviews for all of those books. And a big thank you to everyone who read my reviews! 🙂

  1. Isabelle of the Moon and Stars by S.A Jones
  2. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  3. All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld
  4. Snowy River Man by Lizzy Chandler
  5. What Came Before by Anna George
  6. Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser
  7. Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle de Kretser
  8. The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham
  9. The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville

 

It’s always such a rewarding experience searching out new Australian women authors to read, or to add a book that’s long been on my reading list to my AWWC list. Joining the AWWC gives me a valid reason to commit to reading (and writing reviews), which isn’t easy when life is hectic and full to overflowing. It’s been a great year of reading and I look forward to participating again next year.

THE DRESSMAKER by Rosalie Ham

 

the-dressmaker cover
Without a doubt, this book is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had this year. From start to finish I was captivated by the characters, storyline and the prose.

Rosalie Ham is a writer with a cutting sense of wit and she imbues The Dressmaker with keen observations on life in the small Victorian wheat belt town of Dungatar, of what goes on behind closed doors, and the insidious nature of gossip. With caricature characters such as Mad Molly, who lives on the hill, Miss Dimm, the school teacher, Mr Almanac, the town chemist, and the Pratts, who own the only department store in town, you soon appreciate the sharpness of Rosalie Ham’s pen and imagination.

Myrtle Dunnage, now going by the name of Tilly, returns to her hometown of Dungatar after many years absence. She restores her mother, Mad Molly, to health through the brewing of herbs and concoctions, and attempts to slowly integrate herself back into the small community through her couture dressmaking and design skills. But, the people of Dungatar are an unforgiving bunch, and their scorn for Tilly goes much deeper than her heritage of being a bastard child. In their eyes, Tilly Dunnage is a murderess who should be run out of town. However, the gossiping women’s egos soon take over, dominating the small town’s social circuit, as they compete against each other for Tilly’s fashionable creations and vie to be the best dressed and the most beautiful. There are excellent descriptions of frothing, flowing and sumptuous designs that add a fairytale element (like Cinderella dressing for the ball), combined with humorous jabs at the snooty women’s poorer clothing choices or personal attributes that are as sly as an evil stepsister. Pure magic and devilish delight.

The characters in this book are loathsome, despicable and utterly delightful. Many of them behave in completely inappropriate ways – rummaging through Tilly’s mail and keeping items for themselves, for example. Some of the antics they get up to behind closed doors are outrageous, sinful, cruel, gentle and tender. These moments are a driving force in the book. Also, there is a rich theatrical element with delightful character descriptions that make The Dressmaker such a good read.

Rosalie Ham is not afraid to upset her readers, and there are events within the book that made me want to shout ‘No! You can’t do that!’ but she did, and as devastated as I was, I had no choice to keep reading to see where the she would direct the story.

A dark, sinister undertone accompanies the light, fluffy, fashion-driven moments of silk and lace in this novel. There is tragedy, and then there is retribution, dished out in deliciously satisfying ways. The final act of revenge is a scorcher! I was most impressed at the turns this book took, and confess that I can’t wait to see the movie adaptation to see how they have handled this fantastical, dark-humoured novel.

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham (Duffy & Snellgrove 2000)

eISBN: 9780987082039

Author website: Rosalie Ham – The Dressmaker

Author FB page: Rosalie Ham Writer and Novelist

 

ALL THE BIRDS, SINGING, by Evie Wyld

All the birds singing_coverAll the Birds, Singing is a brilliant book that deserves the praise and accolades it has received. The tension that stretches throughout the book keeps you just that little bit on the edge of your seat. Never quite able to relax. Coupled with concise writing and compelling imagery, this book makes for addictive reading.

Jake Whyte is a sheep farmer with a tumultuous past now living on a remote, undisclosed, wet and cold island. She keeps to herself, refusing to socialise with the small island community, fearing that he will find her. Jake’s nights are fraught with things that go bump in the night, each sound amplified and distorted, reality and nightmare blending, bleeding into one another. Her days are tormented by some unknown creature that is killing off her sheep, one by one, leaving the carcasses to be discovered in the paddocks on her property. Someone or something is out there. Watching.

Jake is a closed book, refusing to open for anyone, and yet as you read the shadows of her past slowly emerge. Her life is one of solitude and long suppressed pain and torment. Evie Wyld does not shy away from forthright portrayals of harrowing events. There’s no padding to put the reader at ease. Instead there is a raw honesty and intense scrutiny of events that creates discomfort, makes you catch your breath and squirm in your seat.

There is also a keen reflection of Australian culture in her portrayal of life in rural Australia, of a life lived on the fringes, as an outsider and how the events of youth can have indelible consequences on the future. All the Birds, Singing is convincing, electric, raw and, ultimately, beautiful.

What I loved about this book is that it wasn’t predictable. Things that I thought would happen didn’t. There were events and revelations that I never expected. The method of storytelling added to the uniqueness of this book. The story is delivered in a back-and-forth, past and present format, however what makes this narrative so unique is that as the present progresses ever forwards, the past unfolds ever backwards taking you further and further back into Jakes’ past, to the original catalyst point. The two parts of Jake’s life spiral outwards away from each other, rather than meeting at a common point. The present is told using past tense, giving a sense of distance, and the past is told using present tense, creating a sense of immediacy the to the events. It’s a clever technique, and it works incredibly well. It’s Evie Wyld’s talent in writing and construction that makes All the Birds, Singing such an enthralling read. If you haven’t gotten your hands on a copy yet, make sure you do. Soon.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (Random House 2013)   ISBN: 9781742757315 (ebook)

Winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Literary Award aww-badge-2015

IN CERTAIN CIRCLES by Elizabeth Harrower

InCertainCircles_2This book delves into a psychological exploration of people, relationships, class attitudes and power, and the way in which our childhood and family background influence our actions and decisions.

Harrower casts a searching eye over the postwar Australian middle class through Sydney North Shore socialites, the Howard family, and their reaction to impoverished orphans Anna and Stephen Quayle. The differences between how life is approached, lived and processed by the socially accomplished Howard children, Russell and Zoe, versus the orphans is a major theme throughout the book. Anna and Stephen are emotionally damaged after the death of their parents and years spent living with an unstable Aunt (and her caretaker husband) whose mental illness slowly spreads taking over the household and everyone in it. The Quayle siblings wrestle to overcome the repercussions of their disturbed childhood in different ways, but undeniable damage has been done. The Howard family outwardly appear accomplished, educated and emotionally balanced yet their middle class status is unable to provide protection against corrosion of the mind or personality.

Zoe is young, full of life and confidence in herself. She has only ever know praise and privilege.

“She had discovered this high-handed, high-spirited manner of seeming tremendously well pleased with herself.”

When she encounters Stephen’s disdain and criticism of all that she stands for, Zoe is shocked yet attracted to him. She finds herself strangely drawn to this man who fails to be flattered by her charms, who doesn’t hold her aloft in a glittering light simply because she exists.

“Something in him took her from the pink marshmallow castle of her life to a high cliff over the ocean in the real world.”

Zoe, full of her own confidence, views Stephen as a challenge and is certain that her love can heal his wounds. That she can save him. That her love can soothe the anger, the vitriolic outbursts, the sullen silences, and the extended emotional withdrawal that Stephen exhibits. Zoe succeeds in seducing Stephen but after twenty years of marriage she discovers that she is but a shell of her former self, finds herself unrecognisable and that her marriage is mirage:

“I have the impression that I died two or three years ago, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Russell returns from the being a prisoner of war a changed young man and dedicates himself to helping others less fortunate than himself. It is Russell who introduces Stephen and Anna to the Howard family and draws them into the household and their lives. Despite being engaged to Lisa, a high spirited woman from their wealthy social circle, Russell feels an attraction for Anna that he has not experienced with other women. A quiet tension simmers between the two of them, over years and decades, until it erupts with devastating consequences.

Anna wrestles with her unrequited love for Russell but does not give in to it. Instead she is determined to make her own way in the world, to gain her freedom through work. Regardless of the pittance she is paid, Anna celebrates her independence and escape from her Aunt’s madness through small moments encountered in the everyday with her co-workers and time spent alone on weekends.

“She lay with her face down, her forehead and cheeks and bare arms pricked by the short mown grass. She breathed the fresh earth odours and they fed her. She lay so heavily relaxed and weary that she seemed to sink and grow into the comfortable ground. And as though it were a person, she began to feel fond of the country, from being so close to it.”

In Certain Circles was written in the 1971 but withdrawn at the last moment by Harrower, and never published. It’s final publication proves that Harrower’s portrayal of relationships and attitudes of the day are as relevant now as they were then. The story and its characters have been able to stand the test of time, which is no small feat. This is a masterfully written book that reflects the vastly different perspectives between the lower and middle classes and how hardship is understood and dealt with. Another theme running through the book is how women are placed within society, their roles at work and within the home, and the expectations  around marriage and domesticity.

“He should be a professional humorist – asking me what I’m going to do for an occupation. There’s only you, you, you – as the song says. And us, and our harbourside estate, and our cats, and that room full of stuff to be translated, and your printery, and our public life – provided by Russell, and our private life – provided by us…”

The pace is slow and the plot focuses around the internal working of the characters. It is the psychological tension that propels the narrative forward, and it is beautifully handled by Harrower. She manages to deftly present opposing perspectives and insights into the human psyche through her flawed characters. She has created characters that resonate through their foibles. I found myself at times anxious and frustrated with both Zoe and Anna, wanting them to move forward, to take control or action instead of being so passive. I wanted to shout at them and shake them for some of their behaviour. Stephen was both an annoying martyr that I loathed and someone I felt infinitely sorry for. It’s that kind of book. It will bring your emotions to the surface.

awwbadge_2014In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower (Text Publishing 2014)

Elizabeth Harrower is the author of The Watch Tower (Text Publishing 2012) and Down in the City (Text Publishing 2013) both of which also explore themes of social class, set against a Sydney backdrop.

MATESHIP WITH BIRDS by Carrie Tiffany

Mateship with BirdsCoverMateship with Birds focuses on the lives of dairy farmer Harry, and his neighbour, single mother Betty and her two children, Michael and Little Hazel. Set in countryside Victoria, in the 1950s, the book subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) explores themes of desire, courtship and sex against a backdrop populated with Australian iconic birds.

Harry has long been single, his wife having left him for another man, and he fills his days with tending to his dairy cows, who have endearing names such as Pineapple, Enid, Fatty, Big Joyce and Pauline, to name but a few, and distinct personalities to match. The cows have a presence all of their own and I love this scene (below). It is filled with power and movement, and brings an every day moment in the dairy to the fore:

“On these wet mornings the world seems close around them – Harry and the herd. It is the same greasy rain that hits them both, that sticks to hide and skin, that gushes down their legs and gathers in their eyelashes. Harry opens the gate and pushes in among them. Their blood is hot. Each cow gives off her own great heat and takes in the heat of her sisters. They are urgent with milk and hunger, stamping and bellowing and thrusting out their necks.” (p.4)

Harry also has an affinity for bird watching, in particular the kookaburra family that has taken up residence, and his binoculars are never far from hand; Harry observes the kookaburra family’s interactions with regularity and affection. Carrie Tiffany brings birds to the forefront in this book and they offer a charming and delightful segue throughout the narrative, giving a voice to Australian birds that we know well but are generally relegated to the periphery of human life. In some sections the life of birds is just as dramatic as the lives of the main characters. The birds are not only seen but also heard, their partnerships are vibrantly alive, and losses are keenly felt. Carrie brings into focus the large space that birds fill through songs, colour and plumage, and their battle to survive nature and machine.

“A honey eater,

tongue drunk

on nectar,

sleeps it off

beneath a flowering gum.

Until Dad, perched above,

notices the jerky

intoxicated cycling of its twiggy legs.

That’s dinner sorted.”  (p.90-91)

One underlying theme is the rhythm of farm life, its solidity and receptiveness, but we are also exposed to the harsh realities, experienced through moments of violence, and the peculiarities of country life. Sex, life and death are explored through the discerning eyes of adults and the curious eyes of children.

Harry has come to care deeply for his neighbour Betty and her two children but his gentle, shy nature sees him dance about the object of his affection without openly declaring his feelings. Betty wrestles with her own feelings for Harry but rather than voice them, she indulges in fantasies of desire. As Michael approaches sexual maturity, Harry, taking on the role of surrogate father, decides to offer advice on the act of sex. A man of few words, Harry makes some clumsy attempts at explaining sex to young Michael and resorts to writing letters, using farming anecdotes and scientific analogies as his rationale. For example, in one letter to Michael, Harry covers the topic of kissing:

“The male and female kissing equipment – mouth, tongue, mechanisms of salivation – are strikingly similar, excepting scale.” (p.169)

For all of his well-meaning attempts, Harry tends to see the female body in more mechanical terms, and neglects to advise Michael of the emotional aspects, the importance of love, and this could be indicative of how men viewed women and relationships in the 1950s.

Mateship with Birds is composed of a series of narratives, moments in time, poems (that Harry writes in the columns of an old ledger), and letters. The pace is unhurried but not slow, and for me it was akin to strolling along a country road, where everything on the horizon is visible but then a bird, a cow or person comes into sharp focus and my attention is fully engaged, watching, listening, before moving on. There is beauty in the everyday but also recognition of the banal and Carrie Tiffany manages to convey these elements without overly romanticising country life.

“[Harry] leans against the Waratah, one hand resting on the strip of Axminster glued to the tank, the other cooling around the beer. The net curtains are drawn across the long window in the front sitting room; they hang a foot or so short of the floor. A few dead flies lie behind the glass and further in he can see three pairs of slippers, the mottled flesh rising out them like puddings.” (p.196)

Mateship with Birds shows country and farming life through a different lens, one that is at times both gentle and cruel, comedic and peculiar, practical and romantic. The story unfolds through a multitude of different heartbeats and a reveals a tenderness that will stay with you. A truly delightful book.

Carrie Tiffany is an award-winning author and her second novel, Mateship with Birds, was the winner of both The Stella Prize (2103), and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards (2013), and was short-listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (2013).

Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany (Picador 2012)

awwbadge_2014