Frew, Peggy. Islands. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2019. RRP $29.99. 320pp. ISBN:
You were a girl, thin and young, with veins that showed blue through your pale, pale skin, and your hair was reddish-gold and really you were still a kid when we saw you last.
You were a girl and you were only fifteen and you looked younger. Long legs, grey eyes.
You were a girl, a sister and a daughter, and we knew you. At least we thought we did. (1)
It was my sister’s birthday recently and I remembered how she used to dig burglar traps outside our home as a child. Pits in the dry sand where grass used to grow, but no longer does because we live in Perth and without constant nurture everything threatens to revert back to the sand it came from, even the earth our home sits on and the clifftops that hug the Swan River.
My sister is in her thirties and I guess she no longer digs burglar traps, so I wonder if her sons dig them instead and if not whether the burglars will get in.
I’m thinking of her especially because it’s her birthday and because of Peggy Frew’s Islands which is a story about sisters, about daughters, and parents. It’s a collection of memories, and the layers of experience separated by years that, on reflection, seem to butt right up against each other.
A fragmented narrative, Islands tells the story of John and Helen, whose marriage is falling apart, and their daughters Junie and Anna. In time, Junie grows up and becomes June. No-one knows what happens to Anna except Anna herself and she never says. Anna, who doesn’t come home one night when she is fifteen years old, is the only character who can’t tell her own story. She is the absence and the silence at the novel’s core and she defines it; she defines the lives and expression of everyone around her.
The spaces and memories of the novel are porous, every home has openings to the outside, through the roof, through a window, from the veranda. We peer in to see the family that slowly disintegrates, the family that is neglectful, the family that holds its secrets close or not close enough. It is outside also, it is out there, where sisters and daughters are lost, where they cannot be found, where we will search and search but never find an answer, never a resolution.
Here is your island, and here are ours—your mother’s and your father’s and your grandmother’s and your sister’s. Islands, towns, beaches, houses. Bedrooms, kitchens, parks at night. Mothers, fathers, mirrors, dinners. Christmases, bodies, paintings, horses.
The world swarms, and this is just our world, the world of our family, the world of our own making. It exists in us, and in the places where we reach across to each other. The world swarms in every direction. The world swarms, and somewhere you are in it. (4-5)
There is never one story, and Islands is the story that all the stories create when they are accumulated: a geological layering of family members, moments and memories. Stories of the multitudes contained within the family are told through vignettes, one sided interviews and with descriptions of June’s paintings. The reader is invited to piece them together and to create our own resolution. The reader is voyeur and creator.
And even as we read, we do so through our own stories, intertwining them with the words on the page, creating new versions. We read with our sisters sitting beside us, always. And our mothers, fathers, and our grandparents and children.
Of course, because we know Anna goes missing, between the snippets and the stories, hides a dreadful inevitability. I read with a deep longing for one of the characters to put out a hand and catch this troubled, fragile teenage girl, before she is flung: centrifugal force taking her out of orbit, and away. There is immense grief in the knowing, that whatever stories the characters tell, Anna will always disappear.
I don’t know if my sister’s two boys are the trap digging kind. I do know they’re the roof climbing kind and the running in the park kind, but I lament that I haven’t asked her about the burglar trap situation. I must find out, before it’s too late.
And in the night, in our sleep, we extend a reaching hand to the boundary of our island, to check our dear ones are still there. To check they’ll stay there, in memories of burglar traps and Choose Your Own Adventure novels, even after they’re gone.
Rachel Watts is a writer of literary and speculative fiction. Her work has been published by Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, Tincture and more. Her climate change novella Survival was released in March 2018. You can find her online at www.wattswrites.com or @watts_writes.