Reading the Stella Prize Shortlist – Hope Farm by Peggy Frew


Okay. Clearly I don’t ‘get’ Peggy Frew.

It’s all ticker-tape parades and celebrations on Goodreads for Frew’s second novel, Hope Farm.  And then there’s my two star rating, sitting alongside the glowing four and five-star reviews.

Hope Farm is the story of Silver and her mother, Ishtar. They have lived a nomadic hippie existence for all of Silver’s 13 years and, after Ishtar meets the charismatic Miller, they move to Hope Farm, a commune in rural Victoria. At Hope Farm, Silver sees her mother in a different light and questions their relationship.

“It was always the same. We had to leave because the energy had changed – something had faded, failed, gone wrong. There was probably a specific reason, probably to do with a man, but I never needed to look that far. I just saw it coming in Ishtar, in the flattening of her voice and movements, the dulling of her colours.”

People are raving about this book and I’m not. Why? It’s partially a style issue – I find Frew’s writing obvious and formulaic. Too much telling, not enough showing. The detail is flat and one-dimensional, leaving no room to fill in spaces or to speculate (because that’s how I become invested in a book) –

“That creek! The lightness of the flow of water; the warm, brown look of it – even though, when I put my hand in, it was so cold my fingers turned white and numb – the wet fissures in the big rocks that sat half submerged; the refractions of the amber light deep down, and the mossy-looking spotted fish that lazed there. Birds seemed to burst with pleasure out of the canopy of bush, hurtling their calls around, landing with an extra flourish to dip their heads and then lift and shake them, brash drops flying from their beaks.”

Creative Writing 101? It’s the height of rudeness but I couldn’t help compare Frew’s descriptions of the landscape to those in books such as Foal’s Bread and Mateship with Birds, which have a very different kind of precision.

The characters in the story were serviceable but there was nothing new, nothing to surprise me. The sense of place and time (the book is set in 1985) is thoroughly described but again, is exactly what I would expect a hippy commune to be like.

In summary, I didn’t learn anything new from this book. Not because I grew up on a commune in Nimbin and have first-hand experience (I didn’t and don’t) but because it felt like the detail was a regurgitation of every pot-smoking-not-enough-mung-beans-to-go-around-dirty-mattresses-on-the-floor hippie stereotype I’ve come across. Nothing about this story transported me to another place. Nothing made me gasp with surprise. Nothing made me want to read bits again.

2/5 Please someone, tell me why I’m wrong about this book. What did I miss?

Will it win the Stella Prize? No.

17 responses

    • I think commune stories might be the current trend – I have The Girls in my reading stack as well – same sort of thing and will be looking forward to seeing if it takes me somewhere different.

  1. I haven’t read this book but did see all the rave reviews on Goodreads. It’s refreshing to read such an honest review with reasons and examples. So, now I’ve become curious and just downloaded the book to read. Ill get back once finished and let you know my take on this book. Thanks again for such an honest, independent review! As an aside I sure wish I could read as fast as you. So many books I wanna read and it takes me forever to get through just one! I don’t know how you do it! 😀

    • Thank you for your comment! I don’t like giving poor reviews but at the same time, if I didn’t enjoy a book I want to say so, just as much as I do if I have the opposite experience! That said, I would never say a book was crap without giving specific reasons – things that bother me about a book might not bother others and that the joy of forums such as Goodreads. I’ll look forward to your thoughts on Hope Farm (and I hope my review doesn’t sway you!).

      On the other matter of reading speed, it’s funny because I follow lots of bloggers who I think read really fast (like 5-7 books a week fast!). I go through phases – sometimes I get through 2 or 3 books a week and other times I struggle with one!

  2. Oh dear so sorry to hear that this one didn’t work for you! I’m not a huge fan of books set in communes, not that I’ve read one for a while, and I know exactly what you mean about the repeated same scenes.

    • I wonder if books about communes are a thing because people are generally fascinated by the thought of cults/ closed communities/ communal living? Our speculations and stereotypes are probably based on a few, narrow examples that have been rehashed over and over.

  3. hi Kate… not adding this one to the book club votes now. thanks for your honest review! plus after reading natural way of things it might be a bit much. might give it a few months and then add it. I think I have already won the stella prize winner.

    • I got the impression that people on Twitter tonight who are reading the shortlist really enjoyed it… like people on Goodreads. I do think I’m a small minority – worth mentioning that I didn’t like her first novel either and again, others raved.

  4. I have this on my TBR pile (maybe this long w/e??) and will get back to you. I do feel sceptical about it – it’s the one on the Stella that appeals to me least.

    • Plenty of people are raving about it so you may be pleasantly surprised – I don’t particularly like commune stories (as opposed to boarding school stories for example). Also, it’s a style thing – what some find beautifully descriptive, I find overworked. Will look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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    • I’ll look forward to your thoughts if you do read it. I must admit, I didn’t enjoy Frew’s first book (for many of the same reasons) and only read Hope Farm because of the Stella Book Club.

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