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Review: Islands by Peggy Frew

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

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

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.


Book #40 of 2019

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


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Review: Hope Farm by Peggy Frew

Hope FarmHope Farm
Peggy Frew
Scribe Publishing
2015, 343p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {courtesy of the publisher/}:

‘They were inescapable, the tensions of the adult world — the fraught and febrile aura that surrounded Ishtar and those in her orbit, that whined and creaked like a wire pulled too tight.’

It is the winter of 1985. Hope Farm sticks out of the ragged landscape like a decaying tooth, its weatherboard walls sagging into the undergrowth. Silver’s mother, Ishtar, has fallen for the charismatic Miller, and the three of them have moved to the rural hippie commune to make a new start.

At Hope, Silver finds unexpected friendship and, at last, a place to call home. But it is also here that, at just thirteen, she is thrust into an unrelenting adult world — and the walls begin to come tumbling down, with deadly consequences.

Hope Farm is the masterful second novel from award-winning author Peggy Frew, and is a devastatingly beautiful story about the broken bonds of childhood, and the enduring cost of holding back the truth.

This year I made a commitment to read the six books shortlisted for the Stella Prize, which recognises writing by Australian female authors. I’d already read one last year (The Natural Way Of Things by Charlotte Wood) so that left me five to read. To help motivate me for this I signed up for the Stella bookclub where participants read one book a week to complete the shortlist before the winner is announced. There’s a Twitter chat each Monday night between 8-9pm where those who have read the book can join a hosted/led discussion. Hope Farm is the second of the five books I need to read to complete the shortlist and my favourite so far.

It’s the story of Silver, who at 13 is moving yet again with her single mother Ishtar. Silver’s life seems to be have been a kaleidoscope of sharehouses and commune-type things but they never seem to stay in one place for long. Ishtar meets Miller, a man with ideals to live sustainably and self-sufficiently on Hope Farm, located somewhere in Victoria’s Gippsland area. Silver and her mother travel two days by train to get there, arriving before Miller to a place that doesn’t particularly look like a utopia. There are several inhabitants, most of whom work at a nearby powdered milk factory in order to support the farm.

In theory, Hope Farm sounds awesome. I have to admit, there’s something so very attractive about the idea of being mostly self-sufficient – growing your own food, having a few animals to use for protein or barter. But the reality of these places is nearly always very different – it’s poverty, drugs, people who don’t know what they’re doing and blurred lines. Silver sees a lot, experiences a lot, things that she should probably be protected from. The narrative is almost all Silver’s which at first made me devote my sympathies and loyalties almost exclusively to her. But interspersed are diary entries, which after a couple become obvious that they’re written by Ishtar. They shed some light on her early decisions, what she sacrificed and the choices she made in order to be able to gain what she wanted. Whilst I didn’t always agree with Ishtar, the choices she made and how she was raising Silver, I did find myself coming to slowly admire her for her strength and determination. I think that she made a lot of those choices for the right reasons, she was searching for something but every time it looked like she found it, really what she’d found was just another form of oppression and the feeling of being stuck.

This book is set in the 1980’s, not that long ago in broad terms but there are attitudes and beliefs that have evolved significantly in many ways since then. Ishtar was only a teenager when she fell pregnant and in Queensland in the 1980’s with a religious mother, there were very few options that were open to her and the desperation that she felt was really quite heartbreaking. The more diary entries I read from Ishtar, the more of them I wanted to read – I felt as though her story was really only just touched on, those sparse entries just giving the reader enough to flesh out the rest in their imaginations. It’s impossible for that youthful idealism Ishtar had to remain untainted as she moves on again and again. It definitely affects her relationship with Silver and as the pattern continues, it also clearly affects the way that Silver sees her mother.

I have a bad record with prize winners – I almost never love the winner and sometimes I don’t even like or get any of the books chosen for a shortlist! I still keep trying though because reading shortlists helps me broaden my reading and get me out of my comfort zone a bit. I am happy to say that the two I’ve read so far from the shortlist for the bookclub have both been enjoyable, but this one is my favourite. I connected really strongly with Silver and the landscape as well. It’s set in a different part of Victoria to where I live but I could imagine what it would be like those cold winter nights with no heating, wearing pretty much every piece of clothing you own to stay warm. I lived rurally when I was younger too and my brother and I often explored the local area the way that Silver and her neighbour Ian explore the bush and the abandoned mineshafts. The novel built very well towards the climax, constructing a simmering atmosphere on the farm that was bound to boil over.

Hope Farm is beautifully written – I enjoyed it before we discussed it but that conversation only helped me appreciate it more. I think were it to win, it’d be a worthy choice.


Book #53 of 2016


Hope Farm is the 21st book read as part of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016


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