HOPE FARM by Peggy Frew

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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

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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

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NORWEGIAN BY NIGHT by Derek B. Miller

NorwegianBy NightI thought I’d start the New Year with something a little different from my usual reading genres: a suspense novel. With the pleasure of a few days off over the long weekend to look forward to, it was the perfect time to go over my backlist of ‘books I want to read’. I’ve had Norwegian by Night on my Kindle for some time and a suspense novel involving an old man in a foreign country who kidnaps a young boy seemed like great holiday reading.

Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year-old New Yorker, now lives in Oslo with his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband, Lars. The death of Sheldon’s wife Mabel prompted Rhea to convince Sheldon to come live with her. He agrees, but not without some argument:

“What am I going to do there? I’m an American. I’m a Jew. I’m eighty-two. I’m a retired widower. A marine. A watch repairman. It takes me an hour to pee. Is there a club there that I’m unaware of?”

Rhea is concerned about Sheldon’s conviction that he was once a sniper in the US Marines, when Mabel said he was merely a filing clerk. Dementia is how Sheldon’s rants about being a sniper in Korea are explained away by both women.

Sheldon is a man whose mind is slowly dissolving the lines between past and present, and the boundaries of time and events. He sees and converses with dead friends, and even accompanies his dead son, Saul, into battle in Vietnam, a place he has never been. His mind may be playing tricks on him, but he still has plenty of sass and pluck. He’s a man who won’t give up his aged Penthouse coffee mug or aviator sunglasses, and his reasoning to explain his dementia made perfect sense to Lars, a man who respects good logic.

Through the turn of a good deed and helping a neighbour in distress, Sheldon finds himself hiding in a closet with a young boy who speaks no English, and a dead woman in living room. In an attempt to protect the little boy whose mother was viciously murdered, Sheldon absconds with the boy to keep him safe. They embark on an adventure across fjord and land, by boat and tractor, to get to Rhea and Lars’s summer house at Glåmlia. Despite his dementia, Sheldon manages to stay several steps ahead of both the Norwegian police and the bad guys.

I found the pace slow to begin with and it didn’t really pick up until about half way through the book, but then there was a definite shift in gears to high suspense and nail biting moments. A lot of back-story was given in the early section of the book, which sets up Sheldon’s life, and puts into the play his dementia.

Political aspects of asylum seekers from Serbia and Kosovo being granted immigration rights become a focal point for the tension in the book. Had Immigration’s rules and background research into applicants been more stringent, then there wouldn’t be a dead Serbian woman in Rhea’s living room, and Sheldon and the woman’s young son wouldn’t be on the run from members of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

There is a wry humour that emerges in places, which I really enjoyed. Sigrid Odergard, the Police Chief Inspector in charge of the investigation to find the murderer, and Sheldon and the boy, grills her team about the lack of evidence or leads:

“They’re all now staring at their shoes, which Sigrid reads to mean that her summary is accurate. There are seven of them. Seven droopy dwarfs. And she is Snow White, awake from her long sleep. And not a cup of coffee to be found. Just a room full of hairy midgets.”

Miller provides some delightful cultural insights into Norwegian behaviours and mannerisms:

“It is as though the Norwegian nation has learned how to rein in unbridled masculine power and bring it into social balance, burying its rough edges from public view, but permitting expansive and embracing moments of both intimacy and force.”

This outlook is later questioned by Sigrid, who reflects on her father’s habit of waking in the early morning and downing a shot of akevitt before doing the milking:

“The Oslo intellectual types don’t go in for that sort of manly approach to facing the cold and dark of the northern morning… maybe we’ve become a nation of pussies.”

Sheldon, desperate to save the boy, explains their dire situation to a group of young Norwegian hunters and asks if they’ll help get the boy to safety:

“Are you getting all of this? I can’t tell when your race is processing information and when it isn’t. It’s nothing but blank stares with you people. I need you to get this. Are you getting this or not?”

Miller writes with skill and he doesn’t tie all the loose ends up. Once the tension reaches its nail biting peak, there are a host of unanswered questions. It’s messy. I liked this effect and the impact of it. The story was over, but the ending prompted me to keep turning details over in my mind, searching for a resolution to my questions. Norwegian by Night is a damn good read and it was a great way to start the New Year.

 

Norwegian by Night (Scribe Publications 2012)                                                      ISBN 9781921942808 (e-book)

Note: In his acknowledgements, Miller writes that Norwegian by Night was first published in Norway in 2011, in Norwegian, although it was written in English. Since then it has undergone some revisions. Miller considers the English-language publication definitive.