The Big Issue : Edition 581
THEBIGISSUE.ORG.AU 22 FEB–7 MAR 2019 33 THE TITLE OF Melbourne author Peggy Frew’s third novel, Islands, alludes to the disconnectedness felt by her characters. But, more specifically, it refers to Phillip Island, with which Frew has a lifelong association. “Phillip Island – I’ve known it in so many different ways. I’ve got these purely primal memories of it, like the colour of the rocks, the sand, eating honey sandwiches on the beach. I’ve got miserable memories of going there in my twenties as a really unhappy person,” recalls Frew. “Whenever I start a book it’s always with the sense of a place. I can feel what it smells like, looks like, the sounds.” Islands centres around the disintegration of the marriage of a couple, Helen and John, and the impact of the flying shards spinning off from that break-up. Most perilously, the impact on their daughters, Junie and Anna. When Anna mysteriously vanishes, her absence only heightens the grief felt by her family; her sister, mother and father stumble through avenues of numbness. They try to heal themselves, but can’t help but constantly wonder about her whereabouts and what role their behaviour had in her disappearance. Islands is not the first time Frew has depicted mothers and daughters and the troubles that can bedevil women’s relationships with one another. Hope Farm, winner of the Barbara Jefferis Award in 2016, follows a mother and daughter as they move to a rural hippie commune with her mother’s boyfriend. The story is largely told from the perspective of 13-year-old Silver. In Islands, it’s with Junie’s voice we become most familiar. First, as a child who has a sense of foreboding about the island, her family and her sister’s propensity for trouble. Then, as a teenager faced with her parents’ divorce. While Anna drinks, smokes and becomes more and more alienated and chaotic, Junie ends up being the involuntary sounding-board for her suddenly single, bitter father. It is her reflective and raw voice, as an adult, that brings the reader into the present where memories meet the momentum of daily living. Islands has its roots in Frew’s very first literary efforts; before children and marriage, before the pressure of expectations. “For Islands, I definitely have drawn on my own experiences,” says Frew, who was also a member of 90s indie rock band Art of Fighting. “I wrote a book during my twenties that was my first novel, never published. When I got back to work after Hope Farm, I thought I’d revisit that novel and what I’d written 20 years before as a young woman, drawing on those emotions. Now, in my early forties as a parent myself, I could see all the judgements we make of our parents.” Flailing in the nothingness of Anna’s disappearance, the relationships between the family members suffer from an all-pervasive bitterness and disconnectedness. As Junie says: “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.” For Junie and Helen, the anger provides the only outlet to express an inarticulate sadness and sense of loss. Junie, in her mid-thirties with children and partner, knows only how to be angry. “The way I feel about Junie, and the way I feel about her anger towards Helen in the book, is that it’s easier to feel angry than to feel sad with some people. I think that, actually, Junie is so sad about what happens to her family and about the tremendous loss that she feels of her childhood...she’s never recovered from that terrible sadness,” says the author. For Frew, the ghost of characters and landscapes are ever present. The writing well and truly over, Frew nevertheless is revisited by Junie, Helen and Anna habitually now, lurking in the Phillip Island landscape that gave rise to Islands. “For 30 years, I was returning to this one house [on the island] every year. Being able to chart this relationship with that house and the landscape was definitely a part of building the world for Islands. Now, returning there as a mother with my children and my partner, I think about the characters of Islands all the time. They have become a part of who I am.” by Cat Woods (@Catty_Tweeter) » Islands is out now. PHOTOBYMCLEANSTEPHENSON Peggy Frew is no stranger to writing about the fraught relationships between women, specifically mothers and daughters. In her new book, she comes even closer to home. I think about the characters of Islands all the time. They have become a part of who I am.