April 2019

Noted
by Helen Elliott

‘Islands’ by Peggy Frew
The bestselling author delivers a nuanced examination of family tragedy

There’s a mother, Helen, a father, John, and two daughters, Anna and Junie. Helen and John met at university in 1968 and fell into a relationship that quickly produced the two girls; first Junie and, two years later, Anna. Helen is the sort of woman who raves about sunsets. The sort of woman who keeps to her own time regardless of how many people are waiting for her so they can start dinner. John works hard and says very little. When the girls are barely teenagers and Helen falls in love with another man, John starts to cry. The girls name these months: The Summer of John’s Crying, The Summer of The Break-up, The Summer of Helen’s Boyfriend. They learnt to deflect pain when they were too young.

Peggy Frew’s two previous novels have been concerned with family and the consequences of frugal parental love. Here she’s addressing the same theme but in new ways. She knows what she’s doing: assembling her cast, then letting them unravel in a series of scattered acts that at first might puzzle but later swerve around to psychological revelation. Frew’s gaze is desolate and cool, yet, although not merciful, it is not compassionless. Her characters unfold as a series of questions. Why is Junie, once such a sweet child, now an abrasive adult? How is John – who could weep for an entire summer – now able to find another relationship and move countries? Why is flaky, pretty Helen unable to grasp what being a mother means? And then there is the vast question upon which the novel rests: Why did Anna vanish when she was just 15?

A musician as well as a writer, Frew is particularly attuned to nuance, to psychological shifts. Her anti-sentimentality is rigorous, her perceptions multi-­dimensional. She is curious about what lies just out of sight. John, for instance, sees his mother as harsh, judging, unkind, but he has a memory of deep maternal love when he was a sick child. Maybe this memory is just yearning imagination? Perhaps truth isn’t a shining, pure thing but something blurry? In these layered sheets of writing, Frew is trying to catch the self in transition. And for her, most versions of self begin with “mother”. Fail at this point and the echo resounds through generations. Such formative moments are the trickiest, most delicate things to excavate, but Frew manages despite sparse narrative coordinates.

Her writing about landscape, lyrical and lush, is reminiscent of Bill Henson’s photographs. And like Henson’s work she says things that are unexpected and not easy. Most remarkable of all is her ability to withhold judgement. All she does is turn the reader in a certain direction. She expects them to go on from there.

 

Allen and Unwin; $29.99

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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