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Further flights of imagination

7 November 2015 No Comment

‘Hope Farm’ (Scribe, 353pp, $29.99) is the second novel from Melbourne writer and musician Peggy Frew, following her excellent 2011 debut ‘House of Sticks.’ It’s the resonant tale of Silver, a girl on the verge of womanhood growing up in a string of communes in the early 1980s, and her mother, Ishtar, a single mum with a troubled past and a taste for charismatic but shonky men.

Frew is a gifted writer, evidenced here by finely balanced observations and atmospheric description. The commune of the title, Hope Farm, is on the outskirts of a Victorian country town, the evocation of which is excellent. Frew’s characterisation, too, is strong and she writes with fidelity of the people who inhabit this tarnished idealistic world and the range of reasons they have for choosing to do so.

Silver is poised at the beginning of adult understanding and Frew handles the challenge with deftness. Silver’s insight and compassion are juxtaposed with naivety and the idealistic force of her first crushes. The reader is drawn into the dilemmas that shape her existence at the same time as feeling her environs keenly.

Her story is interspersed at the beginning of each chapter with excerpts from her mother’s diary. This provides a necessary backstory for why they have ended up at Hope Farm, but there’s a sense of technical contrivance, perhaps because these written harbingers of the past have been used in one too many novels.

The temptation to offer an explanation for Ishtar’s behaviour, and in doing so create a balanced intergenerational comparison, is understandable. However, it works against the characters: Ishtar’s patterns of avoidance make it seem unlikely that she would keep a diary, while Silver’s anger at her mother seems too mild. The diary device renders the relationship between them unconvincing, not least because the grace of Frew’s prose feels incommensurate with Ishtar’s capacity for expression.

Fortunately, for the most part ‘Hope Farm’ is viewed from Silver’s point of view. Moreover, Frew’s exploration of the options available to women in different life situations, then and now — the teenage pregnancy, the reluctant mother, the aunt whose career and romantic timing didn’t end in children — is engaging, as is her depiction of the communal movement at the moment when it lapsed from cultural significance.

Philippine-Australian writer Merlinda Bobis has followed her excellent 2011 novel Fish-hair Woman with a surreal dystopian allegory, ‘Locust Girl’ (Spinifex, 179pp, $26.95). It’s an evocative and disturbing tale that begins with an account of the bombing of a refugee camp, implied by the presence of blue tarpaulin roofs. Amadea is a nine-year-old girl living in the camp with her father. They subsist on a diet of sand and locusts, and every night her father goes to walk under the stars, which he claims is good for his digestion. One night while he takes his evening constitutional, there’s a frenzy of lights and the stars go out.

Amadea is woken some years later by Beenaba, who has walked for five days from her own desert home and is lost. Her time underground mirrors that of the locust life cycle and indeed one locust has burrowed its way into her forehead. It is from here that Amadea, who becomes the Beena, then the Locust Girl, sings songs that are dangerous and forbidden as she makes her way to the Five Kingdoms.

Bobis shows an interest in ritual and how societies manufacture their schemes of inclusion and exclusion. It’s allegorically pertinent not just to the question of refugees but also to how the future might play out if climate change is as disastrous as some of the modelling suggests.

The conflation of locusts and humans is particularly interesting, inviting the misanthropic speculation that we have ourselves become a plague upon the earth. Locust Girl is uneven — the parts cohere more as dream than narrative and there is some inconsistency in voice — and Bobis’s magical realist style is lush, more at home (as with Fish-hair Woman) in the jungle. Here it is juxtaposed with the desert and at times the style and subject jar. But Bobis also uses this. While Locust Girl is sometimes confusing on the surface, its powerful images and undercurrents will make mischief in your subconscious.

Jane Rawson’s ‘Formaldehyde’ (Seizure, 179pp, $19.95) is one of three winners of this year’s Viva La Novella Prize, run by small publisher Seizure. It’s easy to see why. It’s an odd but compelling account of an intergenerational love triangle and missing limbs. Rawson’s impressive, quirky 2014 debut novel, ‘A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists’, won the Small Press Network’s inaugural award for most underrated book of the year, and this new novella is imbued with a similar weirdness and wilful disrespect for narrative conventions.

On an ordinary day in 2022, Paul discovers that due to a quirk in the official records he has been declared dead. His employer asks him to leave as working with a dead person is making his colleagues feel uneasy. Paul heads off on an unsuccessful mission to the dole office where he meets the beautiful Benjamin. The tale becomes more tangled and it would be a shame to spoil it with further revelation, but its deliberate implausibility is refreshing, considering the realist bent that dominates contemporary Australian fiction publishing.

Melbourne-based Rawson is a skilled writer with a gift for generating affect. It means her narrative experiments are more readable than many journeys into the avant-garde. Formaldehyde is playful and entirely unpretentious. It’s also blessed with a teasing erotic charm, one that’s particularly suited to the novella form, where brevity orients us towards the thrill of the suggestive: first encounters rather than the relationship itself. It’s a fine example of how smaller publishers such as Seizure, run on the sniff of an oily rag, are revitalising and extending the range of fiction in this country.

Less erotic — it begins with prostate cancer — but entertaining nonetheless is ‘Going Out Backwards’ (Hybrid, 192pp, $26.95), the latest romp of political fatman Grafton Everest, the concoction of retired history professor and prolific book reviewer Ross Fitzgerald, who has brought Comedy Company creator Ian McFadyen in to help him with this outing.

After a break of some years, Grafton, a short-term premier of the Australian state of Mangoland, finds himself catapulted by circumstance and preferences into a position as senator for Mangoland, even though his residence is in Sydney. With his life as a serial philanderer cut short at the tender age of 59 by a prostate removal that has rendered him impotent, Grafton’s political revival is devoted largely to the expansion of his girth.

But of course there is no such thing as a free lunch and he is drawn into a cleverly contrived crisis by a convergence of factors including the somewhat shady business interests of his mentor and chief of staff, Lee Horton, the artistic ambitions of his pole-dancing, bikie-loving daughter Lee-Anne, and his own search for a pill that will resurrect his erection.

Very much a character from the Les Patterson school of public life, Grafton Everest is an excellent comic antihero, a prisoner of appetites. The plot is enjoyable, reminiscent in some ways of the satirical novels of Tom Sharpe. Fitzgerald’s take on the ersatz business focus of the University of Mangoland, in particular, is superb. ‘Going Out Backwards’ is flavoured with a 1960s generation consciousness, the generation of rebels who surfed their way to the great materialism, but it’s sharp, funny, devoid of smugness and deserves a broader audience.

Ed Wright, Australian fiction, ‘The Weekend Australian’, November 7-8, 2015, review, Books p 22.

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