Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Peggy Frew and Elizabeth Harrower

What a privilege to have heard both these women speak recently during the spate of Writers' Festivals that have provided so much for us to think about. It was with some surprise though that I started to think about these two together, in relation to two most memorable protagonists.

I've been reading like mad lately, the consequence of a pile of wonderful books on my To Read pile, many of them from young women graduates of RMIT's Professional Writing and Editing course. I should be queasy with envy, I know, but in fact I'm filled with admiration. Lucy Treloar, Kate Mildenhall, Myfanwy Jones and Peggy Frew to name a few.

The story that has stuck in my mind most recently has been Peggy Frew's Hope Farm.

Set mainly in a Gippsland hippy commune in the mid 1980's, this tells the story of 13 year old Silver and her needy, unreliable mother Ishtar, who conceives Silver when she herself is just 17 and decides, bravely, to keep the baby when all around her are pressing her to give her up.  (At times I wondered if it would have been better for Silver if her mother had made a different decision but that's by the by.)

There are endless great reviews of this book and I don't plan to write another one but the character of Silver affected me to the bones. I lived with her as she shivered through the cold of this strange, ramshackle commune where her mother has dragged her to live, silent and neglected. I lived with her as she longed, in vain, to be noticed, heard, loved and included. And all the while I had a spectre on my shoulder asking 'who does Silver remind you of?'
In the night it came to me, as so often happens - it is Emily Lawrence in Elizabeth Harrower's  The Long Prospect. Harrower gives us a piercing, gut-wrenching portrait of 12 year old Emily, starved of love and condemned to live, as an outsider and a nuisance, in the boarding house owned by her detestable grandmother, Lilian. Emily's own parents have moved to Sydney with scant regard for their daughter's happiness and have only cursory contact with her.

Ishtar, Silver's mother, has none of the malice of Lilian. She is just too needy herself—with good cause—to give Silver a fraction of what she craves. What struck me about the two girls—teetering on the brink of adolescence, when a mother's love might be the most important thing in the world—is the terrible silence of their loneliness, their powerlessness to express their needs, especially their need for love, stability and belonging. They are piercingly similar and I could offer Peggy Frew few greater compliments than a comparison with Elizabeth Harrower.

But one of the (many) things that so impressed me about Hope Farm was the psychological consistency of how Silver develops into adulthood. Without the overt mother love she craves Silver has little chance of escaping the dysfunctional traits that might result - attachment issues among them.

It is perhaps a truism that the most important thing a mother's love teaches us is that we can be loveable. Without that belief it might well be a rocky road to fulfilment. We see that in Silver as she grows up into adulthood. With Emily Lawrence we're left to wonder, and hope.
Now if only someone would write a sequel to The Long Prospect...

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