Farmer, Beverley. This Water: Five Tales. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo Press, 2017. RRP $26.95. 280pp. ISBN: 9781925336313
Women, mythology, and fable retellings are at the heart of Australian prose writer, Beverley Farmer’s last fiction collection, This Water: Five Tales.
In terms of critical acclaim, you don’t get much better than Beverley Farmer. Throughout her career she became best known for her unique philosophical writing style, particularly in terms of how she characterised women and their relationship to the world’s challenges.
Critically acclaimed and highly regarded by both readers and colleagues alike, her first collection, Milk (1983), won the NSW Premier’s Award for Fiction in 1984 and her 1995 novel, The House in the Light was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award.
Farmer passed away earlier this year after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease, during which time she completed This Water: Five Tales. Impressively, the book went on to be shortlisted for the Stella Prize, with many claiming that the stories contained within this volume were some of the best she had ever written.
This Water: Five Tales was something of a slow burn for me. Armed with the knowledge of her prominence and the legacy her writing has left behind for Australian literature, it was difficult to approach the book without the preconceived notion that what I was about to read was going to be of an outstanding quality.
Women are at the forefront of the tales featured in this volume. Unnamed yet rebellious and strong, their individual stories are linked by recurring references to natural elements (such as water, stone, ice and fire). Combined with the unique philosophical nature of Farmer’s writing, and how this relates to women and society in particular, the collection is honestly unlike anything I have read—or am likely to again.
Often, what struck me most in this collection was not the philosophical message behind the tales featured but the way in which Farmer approached even the most routine of things that made me want to sit up and pay attention.
Take this musing, for example, which features in This Water’s opening story, ‘A Ring of Gold’ (a retelling of the legend of the Great Silkie and the first of three novellas featured in the collection):
Is the first time something ever happens to you imprinted for good? Why do our earliest memories last the longest, as if having longer to embed themselves made all the difference? (10)
Just a few pages later, Farmer again impresses with a vivid description of the weather our main character endures in her Victorian beachfront property.
Down here, the heat is ever constant, it comes and goes in waves … The house, like the sea, is slow to take in the day’s heat and as slow to let go of it. The winter sun brims up in the windows all day, but the high sun bears down from pane to hooded pane through leaf shadow, now flaring on a mirror, now melting and buttery, now red. (19)
Farmer’s philosophical way of thinking is not always clear, but it was these unexpected and vibrant passages of prose that compelled me to continue reading a story that, previously, I may not have been all that invested in. This is, for me, a mark of a good writer and no doubt is what endeared Farmer to readers throughout her career.
Though I may have found ‘A Ring of Gold’ to be a little too philosophical for my liking, ‘This Water’ (67 – 93) and ‘The Blood Red of Her Silks’ (93 – 161) are probably the more “commercial” of the collection and definite highlights of this particular reading experience.
‘This Water’ follows a rebellious Irish princess, who, refusing to wed an older man she does not love, runs away with his kinsman, thus gambling the safety of her country, her family, and the life she once knew.
I once had a true love I let slip through my fingers. He paid with his life for my love. As I do myself in my own way still, loving freedom as I do, as hostage to the peace, not to say linchpin, and keystone. As far as a woman can, I make sure I keep my hands on the reigns of power. I play my part to the hilt. (69)
We know from the outset, with these words, that this is not a story with a happy ending. And yet, Farmer manages to create a compelling tale that is, in stark contrast to ‘A Ring of Gold’, fast paced and enthralling. This diversity is, in my opinion, another indication of how Farmer came by her illustrious reputation.
Like ‘This Water’, the aforementioned ‘The Blood Red of Her Silks’ also has a hint of a far away land, mythological or otherwise. With a hint of fantasy, it takes readers to the cross-section of ideological beliefs, a time when Christianity was only just beginning to find its roots in accepted society.
As with all good fairy tales, there is an evil stepmother, who, jealous of her four stepchildren, transforms them into swans, condemned to spend hundreds of years alone on the nearby lake. They are left with the powers of speech so are able to communicate with humans, but unable to resume their life of privilege.
You would be forgiven for thinking that such stories are only for the young, but there was something about this ‘The Blood Red of Her Silks’ that I really enjoyed – a sense of mystery and intrigue exemplified by the following lines:
This has always been a land of mists and mirages, apparitions, visitations, a shifting world where stories change shape as loosely as clouds (156). Stay well away from the deep water if you know what’s good for you (159).
According to mythology, swans are often associated with love, beauty, passion, protection and grace. They have a strong connection to light and the sun (which may make their inclusion in this particular story multi-layered).
Farmer’s tale is enchanting and sweet, with references to heroism, wickedness and overcoming adversity. In my opinion, it is the strongest of the collection, simply because of the seamless melding of fiction, fable and philosophy. It makes you question what is real and what you believe, which is something I have come to understand is ever prevalent in her work.
With such a heavy focus on philosophical themes, its difficult to say if This Water: Five Tales is for everyone. There is no doubt in my mind that Farmer was a very gifted writer, and her legacy will linger on for many years to come, particularly among fans of her previous work as well as those yet to discover it.
Jackie Smith is a freelance journalist, editor and proof-reader and marketing graduate based in Brisbane. Her work has been published through a variety of local and national media outlets. Follow her via her blog, Jackie Smith Writes, or Twitter (@jasmith_89) for regular updates.