The sad news that This Water: Five Tales will be Australian writer Beverley Farmer’s last work of fiction is announced in the first line on the back cover of the book. So it is hard not to read this collection of stories as a kind of testament or intimate reflection on the transience of life and the frailty of human powers.
Farmer, who won the Patrick White Award in 2009, has long been regarded as something of a writer’s writer. This shouldn’t be taken as a backhanded compliment, although it’s true that she has never been prolific; this country, it could be argued, has never had enough writers willing to put literary quality, however uncompromising, above anything else.
The five pieces of short fiction in this book are all inspired by myths and fairytales, and they are all connected by an intricate weave of fabulist imagery. The first story, “A Ring of Gold”, set on the south coast of Victoria, refers to the mythological selkie, a creature who lives as a seal in the sea but sheds its skin to reveal a human form on land. The third story in the collection, “The Blood Red of Her Silks”, is a story about four children who are transformed into swans by a wicked stepmother. When eventually they are changed back, their swanness is sloughed off like a skin.
So there are changelings aplenty, and there are also princesses and rebel brides. There is a story based on The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne, an old Irish tale about a princess who goes on the lam with her lover to avoid being married off to a man older than her father. There is a harrowing dirge sung by the insatiate shade of Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon.
And the final story is about a sort of arctic Pygmalion, striving to create a perfect young bride out of snow and ice; in the end his creations slip through his fingers like meltwater.
With these stories it’s as though Farmer has extended the idea of a discontinuous narrative beyond its limits to include congregations of objects, symbols and colours, which recur impressionistically throughout the stories like the motifs of music. There are creatures that scream, and split pomegranates that also seem to scream. There are gold wedding rings and endless golden glimmers. All the main characters are defiant women and they all wear variations on the colour red: crimson or scarlet or whatever.
And on every other page there are nets and webs and lattices, great tangles of association and connotation. Clytemnestra, for example, weaves a net to trap her husband in his bath so she can stab him to death and avenge the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia.
And there are plenty of spider webs, fishing nets and crosshatched light and shadow. Surely there is a thematic link here to the way the stories are brought together by the iterations and patterns, each one joined to the others by dozens of living images, and not just self-supporting fictions.
And then of course, there is the sea, an enduring preoccupation across Farmer’s long writing career. The four cursed swan children are bound by magic to linger for 300 years on the wild west coast of Ireland, in the midst of the islands and the skerries: “They find they have come to love the sea, they who as children never set eyes on it and as swans once underwent such torment, stranded in its vastnesses; here they are at home in its light, its salty glint, the tang of its estuaries, its boundlessness.”
Rhythm and repetition in the descriptions of these island worlds gives Farmer’s writing the quality of perpetual shimmer and shine, and endless potential for distraction.
Farmer writes like someone who is eternally enchanted by the dynamic wonder of the visible world. In these works the reader is immersed in a shifting play of light and shape and texture, often to the point where the narrative itself is effaced. Sometimes the stories evaporate behind the beautiful chatoyant fragments of landscape and seascape. Between the motion and the action we find not shadows but the fascination of particoloured brightness and surface movement.
Is this disorienting? Farmer can sometimes seem a bit dazzled by the brilliance of her own evocations as her long sinuous sentences transform into pure writing, self-reflexive and at the edge of intelligibility – but this is rare. In fact, there are few writers more sensitive to the intrinsic worth of seeing and feeling through prose.
In any case, it’s the connections between the stories, the ensemble of correspondences, that make this such a luminous and pleasurable work.
This Water is the sort of book that encourages dipping in and reading a page or two, then flicking back to savour and re-read this or that piquant description. Scenes crescendo in slow waves, as if floating in haphazard on the tide, and there is a kind of compositional blurring and softening that suggests irresistibly the late style of an old master.
In the final pages, the old Pygmalion figure, who each season creates a new ice bride to replace the last one, thinks to himself: “With each new bride I have come closer to the peak of perfection I crave. Time is on my side. In the fullness of time, I will have me and hold me a true bride.” But, of course, no artist is immortal and time does not seem to be on Farmer’s side. And nor is it on the side of her readers.
Farmer is manifestly a born writer, in love with language and with the power of language, so it feels unreal to read this collection in the shadow of her retirement. But in spite of all foreboding and mournfulness, This Water is a remarkable collection of stories – beautiful and poignant and wise – which has all the intensity of the sea and is at the same time luxurious, calm and voluptuous. JR
Giramondo, 276pp, $26.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2017 as "Beverley Farmer, This Water: Five Tales".
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