Updated: Jun 12, 2021
Islands is about the disintegration of a marriage and how it affects the whole family. We see the decline and eventual collapse of the marriage and family from all perspectives. The mother who has fallen out of love with the father and wants to move on with her new love. The father who still very much loves his wife and cannot accept the fact that the marriage is over. He spirals into depression dragging the daughters down with him. Both parents seem to have no clue of the terrible harm they are doing to their own flesh and blood, their two daughters. The father seems more concerned about being viewed as a cuckold and pitied, not once stopping to consider the far more direr ramifications the split will have on his daughters. Does he care, or is he simply wrapped up in a coil of self-misery.
Frew uses many different structures and techniques to tell the narrative. This is not a book that you can just read whimsically, if you do you may find yourself lost. Frew will take the reader back and forth in time, will tell the narrative from the multiple perspectives of the family but also sparingly other characters who play integral parts in the overall narrative. Frew will jump from first to third person perspective. But what makes this interesting is she will also use techniques such as a list of paintings which propel the narrative along. An interview with the father from an unknown source, possibly a psychiatrist of counsellor, where the reader is only privy to the father’s answers. Lists of Christmas presents which are presented from year to year, with the presents becoming fewer and cheaper. These techniques add so much to the book and they all work marvellously.
The novel’s title refers to the Island that the family lives on, but I think it also refers to each of the family members being an “island” separate and individual from the family. When Helen falls out of love with John, it affects each of the family members differently. As with most separations the split is far from amicable and John still very much loves Helen. It is this love which blinds him to the terrible damage that is being done to both of the daughters, especially Anna, who we learn early in the novel has disappeared, and after many years, hope has dwindled to any of them ever seeing her again.
Frew does a wonderful job of showing all the perspectives and the misconceptions the family have of one another. Nothing is totally as it seems, and there is no real blame to be doled out. Life happens, people marry young, and separations occur, however it is extremely hard, difficult, for the young daughters to understand, and June in particular, bitterly blames her mother.
Frew also explores the difference of the family unit from generations past. Generations where separation and divorce were not as prevalent as they are now. With unhappy wives and husbands neglecting their own dreams and desires for the sake of the coherence of the family. Secretly John’s mother is jealous of Helen leaving in pursuit of her own happiness. Jealous that she never made the same move, but times were different.
I enjoyed this novel tremendously, the fallout of the marriage breakup, and how each member deals with the separation in their own way, and how the separation, perhaps without them truly knowing it, moulds them into the people they are, some for the better, some for the worse, The bitterness and ill feelings that fester like a cancerous tumour over time when not approached and dealt with. The different techniques Frew uses, especially the list of paintings of Anna, I thought that was quite brilliant. The difference between the generations of the families, the resentment and jealousy. And finally, the ending.
A great read that would be a worthy Miles Franklin winner. 4.5 Stars.
Peggy Frew's debut novel, House of Sticks, won the 2010 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. Her story 'Home Visit' won The Age short story competition. She has been published in New Australian Stories 2, Kill Your Darlings, The Big Issue, and Meanjin. Peggy is also a member of the critically acclaimed and award-winning Melbourne band Art of Fighting.
There is a link to the a wonderful article in the Sydney Morning Herald about Peggy and Islands here -