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Review: Islands by Peggy Frew

Islands
Peggy Frew
Allen & Unwin
2019, 307p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

There was a house on a hill in the city and it was full of us, our family, but then it began to empty. We fell out. We made a mess. We draped ourselves in blame and disappointment and lurched around, bumping into each other. Some of us wailed and shouted; some of us barely made a sound. None of us was listening, or paying attention. And in the middle of it all you, very quietly, were gone.

Helen and John are too preoccupied with making a mess of their marriage to notice the quiet ways in which their daughters are suffering. Junie grows up brittle and defensive, Anna difficult and rebellious.

When fifteen-year-old Anna fails to come home one night, her mother’s not too worried; Anna’s taken off before but always returned. Helen waits three days to report her disappearance.

But this time Anna doesn’t come back …

A spellbinding novel in the tradition of Helen Garner, Charlotte Wood and Georgia Blain, Islands is a riveting and brilliant portrait of a family in crisis by the breathtakingly talented author of House of Sticks and Hope Farm.

A couple of years ago, I really enjoyed Hope Farm by Peggy Frew, which ended up being shortlisted for the Stella Prize. I was attempting to read the shortlist that year and I think of all of them I read, Hope Farm was probably my favourite. So I was quite excited to see a new book from her and I was quite interested by the premise.

This is the breakdown of a marriage and how it affects not only the two people within the marriage, but also their children. Joh and Helen met at university, married and had two daughters, Junie and Anna. They spend a bit of time at what they refer to as ‘the island’, where John’s mother lives. I’m assuming it’s Phillip Island, down in the south east of Victoria (somewhere I have never been despite having wanted to go since I moved to Victoria 13 years ago. I’m finally going next month!). The couple separate after Helen has an affair, after long periods of obvious discord and it has a severe impact on not only John but also the two girls.

John does not cope well with the marriage breakdown and that is incredibly evident to the two girls. Anna isn’t able to visit John because she doesn’t deal well with his inevitable breakdowns. Junie moves out of her mother’s house and in with her father because she can’t deal with Anna. As Anna delves into her teen years, she becomes more and more rebellious with skipping school, smoking dope and spending time hanging around people in the city. One day, Anna goes out and doesn’t go home again. Helen is somewhat used to this, it seems Anna has disappeared a couple times before for a day or two and come home. But this time, she doesn’t. And those crucial early hours are lost, as she isn’t reported missing until several days later. By then, it’s like she just vanished.

Like the breakdown, John doesn’t take Anna’s disappearance lightly either. He’s consumed not just with grief, but with the search for answers, undertaking his own investigation. He tracks people down that Anna may have had even just the most brief interaction with in passing and questions them, getting names of dubious characters and takes off to follow up vague suggestions and sightings like ‘she went to Geelong’ or ‘caught a bus to Sydney’. For John, it is an obsession, to the point where it’s possible he may come to some harm – if not at his own hand, at the hands of someone who may tire of his questions.

John feels so representative of a man with a missing child, for me. He’s unhinged in his desperation and it felt so real, that non stop search for answers. The more time that ticks by, the less likely you are to get a positive outcome and it seems like John is racing against time, trying to find that crucial clue he needs to solve the mystery and find his daughter. It takes over his whole life to the point where he needs help in order to deal with things, I think. It’s possible that John has needed help for quite a long time. I think I actually felt the most sort of connection to John, which was not something I expected. I had a lot of sympathy for him – his mother is a domineering personality who made it clear she didn’t like his wife. His marriage didn’t last and he was devastated by that and by Helen’s boyfriends after their split. He had trouble relating to his daughters at times, unable to keep himself from spilling out his unhappiness and grief and then Anna disappeared. I found things like Helen moving out of the family home and John moving in a year or two after Anna’s disappearance, so that someone would be there if she came home, very sad. You could imagine him living there, waiting for that door to open and Anna to reappear.

This is mostly a story about women, so it’s sort of odd that I feel I related to and sympathised most with John. I found Junie difficult to get to know although the descriptions on her art and how she ended up back on the island as an adult were very good. I found Helen a bit flighty and not particularly interesting, nor did I get much of a handle on her thoughts and emotions after Anna’s disappearance. I do feel as though the narrative of this was cluttered up a bit with the points of view from a few other people connected only briefly or in passing with the family and I’m not sure it added a whole amount to it, for me personally.

I did enjoy this but I think I was looking for a little more resolution at the end. I know life doesn’t often work that way but I did fee a bit unsatisfied at the finish.

7/10

Book #40 of 2019

Islands is the 19th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

 

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