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REVIEW: Alone by Beverley Farmer

Review by Molly Mckew

Beverly Farmer’s autobiographical novella Alone was first published in 1980, the first of many successful novels by the Australian writer, essayist and poet. The short, engaging work depicts the life of an 18 year-old unemployed writer, Shirley, who lives in a boarding house in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton. The novel is set in the late 1950s, when Carlton was regarded as slumlike and dangerous, not yet the middle to upper class, cosmopolitan hub it is now. Over the novel’s two days and two nights Shirley cycles around the city on a borrowed men’s bike, reads all day in cafes, and at home slugs from bottles of port she keeps hidden under the bed. Her loose, independent lifestyle is somewhat ahead of its time. Shirley lives on the societal fringe, renting a room in a boarding house living alongside newly arrived Greek migrants, estranged, pregnant women and old, alcoholic men with nowhere else to go — all overseen by a chatty house mistress, Mrs O’Toole.

Written in first person, Farmer deftly takes us into the mind of a teenage girl preoccupied with solitude, romantic obsession, and fantasies of her own literary success. We are aware from the novel’s beginning that Shirley is mourning a loss: it unfolds that she was left by a girlfriend, Catherine, with whom she’d had an intensely loving, but covert, relationship. Past moments of intimacy are returned to throughout the novel’s pages, and Shirley’s heartbreak is made visceral by Farmer’s aching descriptions. It becomes clear that she has given her ex-girlfriend an ultimatum; she will end her life unless Catherine returns by the end of her birthday. Shirley becomes obsessed with images of blood and death. This sets up a chilling, if riveting, waiting.

Towards the end of the novel, Shirley calls her parents from a phone box in a fish and chip shop, late on the evening of her birthday. She has failed to appear at the roast dinner her parents had prepared. Their obvious concern about her lifestyle disrupts the bravado that the reader was offered earlier on. Shirley reassures her parents that she’s fine, that she will visit them soon, that she will send her Aunty Eth a card for her birthday. Afterwards, she visits a cafe she used to frequent with Catherine – but Catherine is not there. On her way home, she sits by the wharf near Flinders Street station and is sexually assaulted by an older man. Shirley returns home on the tram hiding her torn tights from prying eyes.

At home, Mrs O’Toole pays a visit to Shirley’s room. Shirley quickly conceals her wrist cuts and shoves a bottle of port under the bed as O’Toole sits on the end of it. She enquires about Shirely’s wellbeing (at the behest of her parents), and once she’s convinced that Shirley is fine, tells her that a resident who had gone to hospital the day prior with a miscarriage had now died. Shirley simply enquires, “have you ever seen a dead body?”

I will not describe the novel further for fear of spoiling the ending. This remarkable debut novel, despite its years, is a relatable vignette of solitude, instability, passion and pain — a beautifully dark portal into an obsessive teenage mind, and well worth a revisit in this new, 2024 edition.

Alone by Beverley Farmer is out now with Giramondo publishing.

Molly Mckew

Molly Mckew is a writer and musician from Melbourne. In 2019 she completed a history PhD on the countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s in Melbourne and she has been published in Overland, The Conversation, and Archer magazines.

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