Stella-nominated Hope Farm is the second novel by Peggy Frew. Narrated, for the most part by the mature aged Silver, it is a reflection upon the time she lived with her mother, Ishtar, in a commune, the eponymous Hope Farm, in country Victoria. At various points throughout the novel, we also hear Ishtar’s story in her own words.
In the early 1970s, Ishtar (her adopted name) falls pregnant to her predatory, married neighbour. Her deeply conservative and religious mother sends her away for her confinement to a home for unmarried mothers with the intention that the baby will be given up for adoption. Ishtar desperately wants to keep her child and one day, when she is out walking in the gardens near the home, she encounters a group of people from an ashram. Drawn in by their colour and compassion, she seeks their assistance to shelter her and her baby upon its birth. Thus begins her life, and Silver’s, of moving from ashram to commune as her relationships wax and wain. As Silver describes it
Men were usually involved, in both the endings and the beginnings. Boyfriends, lovers, partners – whatever they were in the varied and loose lexicon of the circles in which she moved…I have no memory of any actual break-ups…She simply withdrew and allowed things to collapse.
When Ishtar meets the charismatic, but unhinged, Miller, Silver is uprooted again as she and Ishtar depart their native Queensland to live with him on the commune at Hope Farm. Silver grows resentful of Miller and the way in which he occupies Ishtar’s life – they have been mother-daughter at one moment, about to embark on world adventures, but then, at the next, Silver is left in the wake of Ishtar’s new love interest. In this home life of fluctuating emotions and affections, Silver’s resentment towards Ishtar also grows. As Silver describes it, at one point:
Why didn’t we just leave, Ishtar and me? Why did she always treat me like this, never protecting me from anything and then when I tried to enter her world, to ask about things like I just had, slamming down a shutter?
Against the backdrop of this triangular relationship, it is at Hope Farm that Silver encounters characters who live on the fringes of society: those who want to drop out from the world or those who feel they need to prove something to themselves or others in adopting a self-sufficient lifestyle. She meets her sensitive, creative, gay friend, Ian, who must contend with constant bullying from schoolmates. And all the while, she is contending with her own maturing, her need for friendship and love and stability, her need for a parent’s guidance, as she navigates adolescence. She develops her first crush on the kind and considerate Dan, who provides her with some of the affection she craves, only to come to understand that he is romantically drawn to her mother.
This is a book that has lingered with me. It has made me think about what it is to be an outsider, either due to rejection or not being comfortable with societal expectations or norms. It has made me think about the sometimes brittle nature of parental bonds and the damage that a parent’s rejection can do to a child. It has made me think about the frustration of not being able to understand a person’s behaviour and how the shutting down of communication deadens relationships. Hope Farm is a beautifully written novel. Highly recommended.
Have you read Hope Farm? Or Peggy Frew’s debut novel House of Sticks? What did you think?