Beverley Farmer, This Water (Giramondo 2017)
This Water is Beverley Farmer’s tenth book. Her first, the novel Alone, was published in 1980. Her short story collection Milk won the Christina Stead Prise for Fiction in 1984. She was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in the 1990s, and in 2009 she received the Patrick White Award, given each year in November to an Australian writer ‘who has been highly creative over a long period but has not necessarily received adequate recognition’.
As Alexis Wright said in her acceptance speech for this year’s Stella Prize, ‘any book is nothing less than a monumental achievement’. To have written book after book as Beverley Farmer has done, with just enough recognition from those who bestow cultural credibility, is beyond monumental.
I haven’t read any of her earlier work, apart from an essay or perhaps two in the late lamented Heat, but I suspect that This Water represents something like a Late Style. There’s something about its five stories that signals a grand indifference to fashion or indeed to how any reader might judge them. They are:
- ‘A Ring of Gold’, which features an old white woman living alone (though surrounded by other people) in coastal Victoria, long after the death of her husband and her only sustaining relationships being in memory and with the natural world. I thought of this as a kind of Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman, only deliberately leaving out the art-making
- ‘This Water’ and ‘The Blood Red of Her Silks’, two tales in the mode of Celtic stories of princesses and curses. Unlike the magnificent tellings of such stories for young readers by the late Ruth Manning Sanders, or for that matter Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Wild Swans’, these – especially the second, much longer one – leave their folk origins to tell challenging adult tales (adult in the sense of grappling with difficult ideas)
- ‘Tongue of Blood’, a monologue from a figure from Ancient Greek tragedy
- ‘The Ice Bride’, the longest of the tales. With motifs and structural elements from fairy tales – especially “Bluebeard’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and perhaps a gender-reversed ‘The Snow Queen’ – this is a deeply creepy, dream-like fantasy. I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, and I imagine that this is infinitely better written, but the abject dependence of the female protagonist on her ‘Lord’ made me think of that book.
None of the characters in any of the tales has a name.
I can’t say I loved the book, but it’s beautifully written, uncompromising in its commitment to exploring aspects of women’s experience, and strong enough that when ‘light year’ is referred to as a measure of time (‘Our dreams are like the stars. What we see is light years ago.’) my irritation was forgotten within a couple of pages. If you plan to read just one of the stories, I recommend ‘The Blood Red of Her Silks’.
This Water is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I gratefully acknowledge that my copy is a gift from Giramondo.
You might like to read my adventures with Farmer’s previous collection called A Body of Water. (https://anzlitlovers.com/2010/02/28/a-body-of-water-by-beverley-farmer-2-bookreview/)
I see from my meanderings there that I meant to try reading some of her novels, but I haven’t come across any so far in my OpShop searches.
I enjoyed your ‘meanderings’ a lot, Lisa. It looks as if I’ve come in late – that these stories would yield greater riches to someone who had already read a fair amount of Beverley Farmer’s work
Ha, Jonathan, I think you’ve mixed up me with Lisa there!
I have, though, read Milk and Hometime, back in the late 1980s. I really liked them, particularly her exploration of like as an Aussie wife in a Greek village. I haven’t read her since then, though I have a novel and The body of water on my TBR. What I do remember is that she wrote to women’s experience at a time when such writing was finally getting published with greater regularity, and I revelled in it.
Oops! Thanks, Sue. I’ve fixed that so I’m no longer confused. The only thing of Beverley Farmer’s that I’ve read previously was an essay, or possibly two, based in her Greek connections, in Heat. I remember liking it/them, but nothing else, and I’m away from home so can’t look them up to refresh my memory. It’s terrible that she may have died when I was still writing this post. It’s a sad loss.
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Yes, I guessed you probably didn’t know when you were writing it, otherwise you would have commented to that effect. Sad though. Only in her 70s.
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