Islands (Allen & Unwin Books 2019) by Peggy Frew, the author of Hope Farm and House of Sticks, is yet another example of this writer’s skill in reproducing a finely-drawn and nuanced portrait of a family in crisis. At the centre of the story is Anna, a rebellious and aloof adolescent, who disappears when she is 15. Surrounding her are her parents, Helen and John, whose marriage is falling apart, and her older sister Junie, who grows into a disillusioned and defensive woman who puts up walls around her emotions and cannot understand how everything went so wrong. When Anna goes missing, Helen doesn’t report it for three days. When she fails to come back, all of their lives are irrevocably changed.
The most fascinating thing about this novel is the structure – we are given perspectives on Anna’s disappearance from the people close to her (her family, her friends) and also people on the periphery of her life, even some who have only played a bit part. And the perspectives jump around in time, from memories of when the girls were young, to June as a mother, to Helen’s early life, to Helen’s later life with her new partner, Dev. There is a chapter entirely devoted to descriptions of June’s paintings (she is an artist and her work often features her vanished sister); there is a chapter about their life at their grandmother’s house on the island of their childhood. Some chapters explore June’s adult relationships. Some are entirely descriptions of Anna or Helen or June; some are beautifully-rendered depictions of nature and the environment and landscape.
This is a novel written in literary prose that pays more heed to language, characterisation and setting than it does to plot. The underlying story is there, but it is overlaid with such gorgeous description, such rhythmic and poetic words, such deep insight into the characters and their motivations and interior lives, that the details of the plot itself are almost superfluous. This is a book in which to become lost, a book with such a microscopic focus on the interiority of its characters that they appear real and familiar.