With a string of awards for her novels Hope Farm and House of Sticks, Peggy Frew is established as one of Australia’s key contemporary writers. In Islands, she continues her exploration of family ties that bind and dissolve, in particular the relationship between mothers and daughters, and the intense rivalry of sisters.
In both a literal and metaphorical sense, the fiction shapes the idea of islands. The novel charts a course around the beaches, caves, small towns and rocky outcrops of Phillip Island, but the chapters also work as floating worlds of characterisation, isolated at times and yet linked thematically to slowly reveal connections under the surface.
Like many classic Australian narratives, the novel centres around a disappearance, a missing child, Anna. This absence infuses the atmosphere of the book: father John’s obsession with finding her, sister June’s withdrawal from emotive expression, mother Helen’s charade of positivity. By glancing off other minor characters’ points of view too, in ways often unexpected or unexplained in terms of narrative time, Anna’s world is made richer and yet more mysterious. For Frew, there are no clear answers: “Can’t he – can’t they all – just stay a while longer in the shelter of not-quite, of haven’t-decided, of not-sure?”
Frew’s talent for descriptive prose and psychogeography is evident throughout. While sometimes she can overshare intentions, her incisive grip on what it is that makes family dynamics dramatic can be powerful when she creates space for the reader to step back and take it all in. Older characters know less as they move through time. Fathers cry in the front seat when driving their daughters home. Daughters negotiate with mothers at a loss, unable to express love for them.
Many literary fictions grapple with daily lives but it is Frew’s experimentation that makes Islands stand out. She takes risks by puncturing the narrative at key moments and using ekphrasis to observe memory through artistic technique. In the most memorable final chapter, her writing verging on the sublime, she repeats a first sentence in a stream of paragraphs, tying together before exploding the notion of the Family Story, that shared narrative that offers the hope of closure. In contrast, this play with form brings us back to Anna’s love for Choose Your Own Adventure books and how endings in fiction are shaped as much by the reader as the author.
Allen & Unwin, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 9, 2019 as "Peggy Frew, Islands ". Subscribe here.