My purchase and review of Peggy Frew’s recently released Islands are to make up for my blowing off a review of Frew’s “best selling” Hope Farm (2015) (here). I don’t regret it. Frew seems to me an innovative and interesting writer, and a writer who writes out of places and personal situations that she knows – which you know I prefer. The “Islands” of the title refer in the first place to Phillip Island, a semi rural family holiday spot at the mouth of Westernport Bay, an hour or two east of Melbourne. I guess the title also alludes to the separateness of the protagonists, but that sort of thing generally eludes me.
The Age/SMH review I’ve linked to below (if you can access it) seems to refer to Frew’s connections to Phillip Island and to the history of the ms in relation to both her childhood and to her other writing. I didn’t read it all. But going by Hope Farm and Islands, Frew does seem to be working through a problem with distant mothering – a mother, not necessarily her own I hasten to add, who takes frequent, inappropriate lovers, the protagonist/daughter excluded, more or less abandoned.
Islands‘ principle protagonist is Junie Worth but at the core of the novel is the disappearance of Junie’s younger sister Anna when she, Anna is 15. Frew works hard to vary both the points of view and the nature of the excerpts that gradually build up into pictures of first Junie, mostly as she sees herself, and then Anna as others saw her.
In my opinion, the story-telling works best when Frew is closest to her subject matter, ie the details of Junie’s childhood, adolesence and marriage and least well when Frew is more ambitious, for instance when she reports as monologue John Worth’s – the girls’ father’s – therapy.
It’s been three years. There was a police investigation. And they found nothing, they were fucking useless, pardon me. And they just seemed to give up really fast. They were saying things like, If someone doesn’t want to be found there’s not a lot we can do. This is a child we’re talking about!
She was fifteen. I said that; didn’t you scribble it down in your secret little notes?
Okay, maybe I didn’t say it. Sorry. Sorry about that. I just get fired up when I think about the cops. Phew, okay, sorry.
John has married the beautiful Helen at university. He is anal, she is a free spirit. His mother has a house on the island – not named, though the principal town, Cowes is, late in the book – where they spend much of their time. They have two girls. Helen takes a lover. Leaves to live with the lover. Takes the girls. Leaves the lover. Takes a flat, men coming and going.
When Junie’s in year 12 she lives permanently with her father, to do her matric without distractions. Anna dislikes her father, his agonizing over the failed marriage, stays with Helen. We – the reader – know from the beginning that Anna is/goes missing.
You were a girl, thin and young, with veins that showed blue through your pale, pale skin and you hair was reddish-gold and really you were still a kid when we saw you last [opening lines].
The back cover blurb gives away this and more. I resent/resist reading blurbs, all blurbs, but especially those like this one that in summarizing the story release all the early ‘secrets’.
The excerpts, mostly dated, swirl around as the author gradually builds a picture of life for these people – from John’s childhood through to Junie’s children – on this island, and in their home suburb. An effect which is spoiled to some extent by giving us Helen’s childhood in one big chunk late in the book.
Even as Helen is looking up langorously from the latest lover to wonder lazily where Anna might be; as Junie goes from uni to marriage to motherhood; as John searches dementedly city streets and railway stations; we begin to see more of Anna as teenage schoolgirl. Short skirts, cigarettes, dope, bare scarred legs, missed classes, late nights. Acting out. See her through the eyes of classmates, more distantly through Junie.
Junie can look back on the past, when Anna was there. She can see, behind her, that world, where things were aligned. And then there is a signpost, a marker, which is Anna being gone. And after that the void opens… you wake each day in the world of No Anna.
Slowly, John settles with a new, sensible wife; Helen moves to Noosa with her guru/partner; Junie (now June) stays clear of Helen, her own marriage coming apart.
There are resolutions. In an unfortunate final chapter Frew suggests an ending for Anna, which might have been better left up in the air. I admire Frew, for the risks she has taken in telling the story this way, and yet I believe that if she were to focus on one protagonist – herself of course – and her relationship with her mother, however fictionalised, and were just to write and write her way through that, with the most limited externalities, then she would better achieve her potential as a writer of character-based literary fiction.
But perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe the mother-daughter stuff’s all done with now and the next book is about something else altogether. We’ll see. You might not think so, but I do understand that novels need ‘stories’ to be saleable, I just, mostly, find stories uninteresting. Meanwhile, read it for yourself. I enjoyed it, and despite the reservations some of you expressed about Hope Farm, I think you will too.
Peggy Frew, Islands, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2019
Age/SMH review, Melanie Kembrey, 22 March 2019 (here)