A Promise Of Peaches by VALERIE VOLK

It was an act of simple kindness for an Australian couple to take two Czech refugees from post World War II Europe into their working-class home. They could never have foreseen the 
tensions these sophisticated Europeans would create, or the life-changing impact they would have on their teenage daughter. A Promise of Peaches explores sympathetically the culture clashes of the 1950s immigration, not unlike those of today, and shows with sensitivity the unfolding of adolescent sexuality.

‘A Promise of Peaches is a thoughtful and deeply compassionate examination in verse of female adolescence and cultural tensions in Melbourne in the early 1950s. Valerie Volk has the reader 
sympathising almost equally with all her main protagonists, despite the steadily mounting conflicts between them. Mutual incomprehension between and within the ‘old’ Australians and the ‘new’ is dramatically portrayed and its climactic resolution persuasively drawn.’ - Geoff Page

‘I read this manuscript in one sitting, without pause, a testimony to its readability and its inherent interest... A verse novel has proved ideal for the task: the work is compressed and the form suits the intensity of the subject... The climax, when the adolescent Claire begins her sexual awakening in response to Viktor, is handled with tact and expertly delineates the responses of the two. The triumph of the novel is this respect for all the main characters – even Irena, who could be a standard “femme fatale”.’  - Thomas Shapcott (Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing, University of Adelaide)

Read more reviews below...open and collapse each review by clicking on the title.

REVIEW: InDaily, John Miles.


InDaily Book Review by John Miles, Poetry Editor

This is the author’s second book of poetry, and one in which she takes a bold step: into the demanding world of the verse novel. But readers of this interesting work, both the poetry faithful and otherwise, will not be disappointed with the result.

On a first, then second more critical reading, I found A Promise of Peaches worthy of joining such recognized Australian examples of this genre as Les Murray’s 1980 The Boys Who Stole The Funeral, John Tranter’s 1992 The Floor of Heaven, and Dorothy Porter’s 2007 El Dorado.

The verse novel or narrative has been with us since time immemorial, since the Anglo Saxon Beowulf, even Homer’s Iliad. But tradition is forever ready to be made new again, as is poetry, always that prime vehicle for a worthy tale, ancient or modern. Strangely, the verse novel went into decline in the 20th century’s heady decades of so-called literary Modernism, but by the 1970s it was staging a strong revival. Using Modernism’s own largely free verse, coupled with the mores of old such as the multiple narrative and well-formed plot, the genre came back, and all such positive attributes can be well seen in Peaches.

In setting, the book is the year 1951, with a preface 1940s and postscript 2009. In backdrop it is Melbourne, but I would offer any Australian city of that time of post-war European migrants and émigrés, as Adelaide very much was. And without committing the cardinal sin of revealing the story as such, in the book the reader finds Viktor and Irena, a Czech refugee couple who are taken in as boarders by Joe and Doss, the parents of Claire, then a young girl about to grow up. Initial hopes and anticipations on both sides of this equation face their inevitable challenges, those spawned by the contrasting cultural and social backgrounds. Accompanying this is also the portrayal of Claire’s own juxtaposed turmoil, that indeed of growing up into adolescence.

The author couples poetic spareness with a rich narrative, as should be the case with the genre. She does this with skill but not detachment, remaining fully in touch with both her characters and their trials. When one becomes familiar with Volk’s own background, this is not hard to understand. In her first book of poetry, In Due Season – poems of love and loss, Volk dealt finely and without self-sentiment with personal loss and tragedy, that of a life’s partner, her husband and father to their children. Lines that could be from either book:

 On the wall – up there –

 Look! Do you see them?

 Golden globules, like small suns,

 That moment when the sun has tipped the hills

 To chase the shadows of the night away.


Fine reading personally, and as a gift for the poetry lover in the family or circle of friends.

REVIEW: The Write Angle, Coral Hartley.

The Write Angle: About Books

Reviewer: Coral Hartley, Editor

A Promise of Peaches

Genre:  Novella in verse form

This remarkable verse novel has been assessed in glowing terms by luminaries such as Professor Thomas Shapcott and Geoff Page, et al. I can only add my impressions of a deftly composed work, vigorous and fearless in its incisive approach to an increasingly complex human situation.

The plot is unpredictable, introduced reminiscently with some bitter overtones by Claire, the chief protagonist, grown old and crotchety. This section, set in 2009, is particularly fine poetry, depicting harshly the resentment of the elderly towards those who condescend in their attitude as carers. Claire’s flashback to 1951 delivers its underlying message of cultural disaccord,with all the far-reaching complications that can arise from a simple neighbourly act of compassion. The influx of foreigners, displaced persons from unknown European backgrounds, lumped together as ‘reffos’ at the end of WWII, found Australia ill-equipped to cope with the buffeting forces of social change.

Volk’s characters are skillfully drawn in powerful contrast to one another. Each has the opportunity to speak his/her own thoughts, as a sequence of events brings tension into their lives. Point of view swings from one to another, in a style that offers continuing suspense and reader expectation. This is the vital yeast of story-telling. The economy of verse effects the rise of the interest factor compellingly, made all the more edifying by the flawless rhythms of polished poetry.

This is a short novel to be savoured in three or so hours of rare entertainment as you get to know Volk’s six interlocked, absorbing characters, discordant though they might be!

Coral Hartley, Editor

A Promise Of Peaches Poetry

Claire - February, 1951

I lie in bed that night and wonder.
Just what would it be like?
To have to leave your home, your friends,
even your books and toys behind,
and find another place to live,
another country?
What if you couldn’t speak the language?
How would people understand you?

The shadows on my bedroom wall
are flickering with passing cars
along the rain-slicked street outside.
The sound is comforting, but still
I shiver, and reach up to pull the blind
that final inch, enclosing
in the room my world secure.

Joe - Sunday, April 8, 1951

Working in
the vegie garden.
I was digging
spuds. Doss in
the next bed,
weeding carrots.
I stopped a minute
for a breather.
Looked at her,
face reddened
as she stooped
and gathered up
the box of weeds.
Felt something
warm inside me.
Thought of
Viktor, on his own
“What say we stop, love,
have a cup of tea?”

Viktor -  Sunday night, April 15, 1951

Nights are worst. Nights when I feel
again the silken ripple of your skin
moving underneath my seeking hands.
Your body quiver at my touch. Your breathing
shallow, quickening as your passion mounts.
The way you lie, eyes closed, demure,
until with calculated practised ease,
you part your legs when you are ready for me.
The nights when you are willing …


Irena - Wednesday, April 25, 1951

Three days. I shall be mad. I walk the room.
I hear her at this door.
“A cup of tea?’
“I drink it not.”
“Coffee then, love?”
She call me ‘love’!!
I stay in room. I will not sit with her. I cry.


Doss -  Friday, April 27, 1951

Lizzie, I tell you I can’t make this work.
You know me; I’m not one to shirk
my duty, but I just don’t know
how I can ever make a go
of this arrangement. She won’t talk
and when I asked her if she’d like to walk
down to the shops with me, you should have seen
the look she gave me, like a queen
staring at a peasant. Made me feel so small –
I don’t think this is going to work at all.
I tell you straight; if not for you next door
I don’t think I’d put up with any more!

Claire - Tuesday, June 5, 1951

Can’t wait to get to school today, and tell them all
I’m going to the gallery. It’s so nice
of Viktor and Irena. Last night I dreamed
about them. Well, actually it was Viktor
that I dreamed about, and we were walking down
a tunnel filled with pictures. Right at the other end
there was a door. Not sure why, but almost felt
it could be scary. Don’t know why. Viktor told me
not to worry  –  in my dream, this is.
I didn’t get to open it. But I wonder
what would have been behind the door.


Claire - Friday,  August 24, 1951

I don’t think I can get to sleep tonight. I only want
to think about that walk home. Dad set the pace –
he always walks real fast on Friday nights – and
Viktor, Paul and I trailed after. We were talking,
mainly about movies, this and that. I guess
I wasn’t watching properly where I stepped,
because I almost fell into a gutter. Viktor reached out
just to steady me, and took my hand.
“But so so cold,” he said. “Where is your glove?”
and then he held my hand the whole way home.

I didn’t tell him it was in my pocket.


Claire - 2009

I saw him only once after the day they left.
It was a long time after. I walked, not really
looking where I went, down Collins Street.
A rainy afternoon, and scurrying crowds.
Pavements wet and slippery, umbrellas
flapping in a gusty wind. And in the gutters
grimy scraps caught sodden in the scum.
The detritus of living. I’d come out from
warmth and golden light – another small café –
not memorable; I’d said my last goodbyes to one
more failed entanglement, and moved
dispiritedly out into the cold. I brushed
against a small dark man, and knew at once
it was the figure from my dreams. But yet
not so. Diminished. Beaten. Shoulders hunched,
and not against the cold. He raised his hat,
yes even now, still hat, still courteous,
but did not look at me. “Pardon!” he said,
and hurried on.