According to the AFP, two Australians under the age of eighteen are reported missing every hour. Most are found alive, fairly quickly, but an unlucky few will progress to the category of long-term missing persons. From the Beaumont children of the 1960s to the more recent disappearance of toddler William Tyrrell, vanishing children have long troubled the Australian imagination. But the nightmare for their families is not one from which they can easily unsubscribe. Denied confirmation of life or death, families are suspended in an immiscible admixture of grief and hope. Peggy Frew’s third novel, Islands, brings a sympathetic eye to this painful subject.
At around two o’clock on the afternoon of 9 December 1994, fifteen-year-old Anna eats a bowl of Weet-Bix, grabs her backpack, and leaves the house. She is never seen again. Anna was a sensitive child – a little ‘peculiar’, her father thought – prone to fantasy and tantrums. An undiagnosed anxiety disorder presented as an array of facial tics and touching rituals that yielded, after her parents’ divorce, to a new constellation of destructive behaviours: smoking weed, wagging school, staying out all night, and who knows what else. Her mother, whose permissive parenting style bordered on neglect, assumed that Anna would come home when she was ready. It was three days before her father heard the news and reported their daughter missing. By then it was too late: the police had little to go on and their investigation – hindered by all the limitations of a pre-internet age – is a road to nowhere.