Nationality: Australian. Born: 1941. Family: Divorced, one son. Address: c/o University of Queensland Press, P.O. Box 42, St. Lucia, Queensland 4067, Australia.
Alone. Carlton South, Victoria, Sisters, 1980.
The Seal Woman. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1992.
The House in the Light. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1995; Portland, Oregon, International Specialized Book Services, 1995.
Milk. Fitzroy, Victoria, McPhee Gribble, and New York, Penguin, 1983.
Home Time. Fitzroy, Victoria, McPhee Gribble, and New York, Penguin, 1985.
A Body of Water: A Year's Notebook. St. Lucia, University ofQueensland Press, 1990.
Place of Birth. London, Faber, 1990.
Collected Stories. St. Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1996.* * *
Beverley Farmer made an immediate impression with her first published work, the novella Alone. Published in 1980, it had been written ten years before and was set even earlier, in 1959. Alone concerns a student at Melbourne University who has been having an affair with another young woman. It ends when she becomes too importunate. In total despair, but quite rationally, she decides to end her life unless her estranged lover comes to see her before Sunday, the day of her eighteenth birthday. Alone describes exactly what the girl, Shirley Nunne, does during the last hours of her life, before she comes to the moment of her decision. Although Farmer's writing can sometimes be excessively sensuous to the point of over-ripeness, with a lavish use of color (golden, amber), more often it ranges from the poetic conjuring up of atmospheric detail—the beauty and ugliness of Melbourne at night—through to the meticulously objective rendition of harshly Australian idiomatic speech. It is a haunting and impressive debut.
Farmer confirmed the promise of this work with two fine collections of short stories, Milk and Home Time, in which the writing is noticeably sparer, more compressed. Nearly all the stories in the first collection concern the interaction between the cultures of Greece and Australia and the misunderstandings that occur between them, but their authenticity and almost elemental strength and intensity of feeling make them far more than merely sociological documents. Although frequently the protagonist is a young woman involved with a Greek man, the stories have a variety of voices and protagonists. Their most impressive quality is the author's ability to confront unflinchingly and immerse herself in the experience of her characters, no matter how distressing it is, without becoming self-pitying or maudlin. Violence—whether psychic or physical—is never far away; if it does not actually occur it hovers on the outskirts of the stories, constantly threatening as it does in "Sally's Birthday." Frequently, especially when the victim is a woman as it most often is, it takes the form of a humiliation or violation of some kind. Estrangement—husband from wife, parent from child, Greek from Australian—is another pervasive element. Almost the sole source of comfort and consolation in this bleak world lies in the children who appear often in the collection, and whose joys and griefs—"the little tragedies of children"—are lovingly and tenderly evoked.
Many of the same themes recur in Home Time. Here again, few relationships are seen to be in any way harmonious; most are riddled with tension and often verge on violence. The sense of estrangement can be both emotional and geographical. In "Place of Birth" Bell (who appears in two stories) is pregnant and agonizing over whether to leave Greece and return to Australia. She receives little support from her husband. "You're a stubborn, selfish, cold-blooded woman, Bell." Several of the stories are set in Greece, but the sense of isolation is not confined to place. Whether the character is called Bell or Anne or Barbara, the stories are enlivened by a sensuous awareness of landscape, especially in those set in Greece, and an extraordinarily acute ear for dialogue.
Farmer waited five years, a period of apparent sterility, to publish her first full-length novel, A Body of Water. Subtitled "A Year's Notebook," it is in fact exactly that, her jottings from February 1987 to February 1988. It records her friendships, love affairs, conversations, thoughts, and above all her reading. Interspersed with the diary entries, which begin with the gloomy statement "My forty-sixth birthday, and no end in sight to the long struggle to come to terms with this isolation, this sterility," are the five stories she managed to complete during the year. The reader is thus in the privileged and fascinating position of reading not only the fiction but the process of its writing, how it emerged from the writer's unconscious and finally took shape. Marking a determined attempt to break from the limits of realism, the novel is not about anything so much as itself. It is about the act and art of writing, not the result. In the end, however, the theme of artistic and emotional sterility threatens to invade the book like a virus, and there is a good deal of overblown writing that recalls the excesses of Alone, rather than the spareness and economy of the short stories: "Tide coming in, a stiff wind. A black ship out, a white ship in. A flash out on the grey water—a pilot boat catching the sun. The dunes have grown fine long green hairs all over—their skin shows through."
Bleakness and solitude are themes of Farmer's most recent fiction also. The protagonist of The Seal Woman is a Danish woman named Dagmar Mikkelsen, who has come to live in a seaside resort in Victoria for a few months at the invitation of two absent Australian friends whose house she is minding. She falls in love with a man named Martin, muses over her past and the husband she lost at sea and the child she was unable to have. Like A Body of Water, this is a highly self-conscious, literary novel that makes constant allusion to other forms of narrative including fiction, poetry, film, and above all myth. Dense with imagery and symbolism, the novel finally abandons itself completely to myth in the closing chapter, in the story of the tragic seal woman whose fate runs in counterpoint to Dagmar's own: at the end, having left her faithless lover to return home, she finds herself joyfully with his child.
In The House in the Light, Farmer turns her back on experimental and post-modern forms of narrative to return to the familiar country of the short stories and her alter ego Bell. Now fifty years old, divorced, with her son a student living his own independent life and her ex-husband's new wife about to give birth, Bell has returned to the Greek village in which she married, to celebrate Easter. Her former father-in-law has recently died but the family still welcomes her, if ambivalently, into their midst. The novel takes us through the week of Easter day by day. It is almost a dramatic meditation, an account of the private mental struggle in which Bell has to reconcile past affections and allegiances with the changed circumstances she finds herself in, to treat the line between respect for the hospitality and culture of her hosts, especially her aging former mother-in-law, and a fierce insistence on her own very different values, which she will neither abandon nor deny. Again, it becomes apparent that the most central fact in the universe of Farmer's fiction is solitude. Her characters are mostly physical and mental isolates, and Bell is no exception. At the end, however, in a beautifully written scene, Bell and the family come to some kind of tentative accommodation. The House in the Light is a profoundly desolate but moving novel. Farmer's Collected Stories include the stories from her two volumes, the five stories that appeared in a Body of Water, and five uncollected stories.
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