The recent Brendan Cowell film production, ‘Ruben Guthrie’, places the sunshine-y hedonism of the Harbour City front and central to it’s plot, almost leading to the destruction of the titular character in a sea of alcohol and drugs – and so that city does for Bonnie. She could have been a contender in the music industry, but in Frew’s ‘House of Sticks’ she has fallen in love with a tradie husband and is burdened down by three sprogs. She loves them all dearly, life rubs along okay – but she’s unfulfilled. Then a window of opportunity beckons in Emerald City, she grabs at it with both hands but Sydney’s party lifestyle and a sleazeball predator brings her undone big-time. Her trouble is, she’s honest to a fault and it all goes belly-up. Cue for the entry of an unlikely hero, staggering to her rescue.
Author Peggy Frew says of the book, ‘…it’s taking a subject that a lot of people wouldn’t think is worth writing about…Family is a key matter for a lot of writers, so how can it be not a valid subject worth writing about? But it’s the mother and baby thing that mean people put it in a pigeon hole. Now I’m a bit worried that it’s not going to be taken seriously enough because it’s ‘only’ about motherhood.’
But it was taken seriously – ‘House of Sticks’ winning a prestigious first manuscript gong, her prize being this tome hitting the shelves in 2011. But had it been just a mother, baby, struggle-town story it could have been a trite affair. Frew, though, has created Douggie, threw him into the mix and for me this is the difference. As if this business of holding it all together wasn’t tough enough for Bonnie already? Doug’s down on his luck and he and hubby Pete go way back. Doug’s a bit of a chancer – not quite to be trusted. But he has some sort of hold over Pete and works it for all he’s worth. He gives Bonnie the heebie jeebies to the max – she can’t bear to be around him. But before she knows it he’s a semi-permanent fixture in the home. Worse, the kids adore him. Then Dougie gets a nod on a sure thing at the races – and their lives are changed forever.
As well, in this Frew is quite potent with her wordsmithery. And she’s writing from a certain amount of experience. Back in the day she was once bass guitarist for prominent band Art of Fighting. Her husband is also a muso – and of course these days she has the balancing act with a family to cope with. Finding time to write in such circumstances is always at a premium. She admits she feels frustrated, like her main protagonist and yeans for the freedom her character Mickey possesses – a free-spirited vagabond in the Adalita mould. In their dreams Peggy/Bonnie wish they could spend time being Mickey.
This novel reflects the domestic challenges most of us on average wages are or have had to contend with in modern Australia. At first Bonnie and Pete have it all down pat pretty well. There’s just enough dosh to get by on as long as they are careful; they have a roof over their heads and food on the table. But Douggie makes Bonnie twitchy and the first cracks start to appear. Throw in Sydney, the nags and it all becomes an abyss.
I enjoyed this first time novel. The author doesn’t hide the fact she admires Tsolskis’ ‘The Slap’ and there’s a whiff of that about the writing – perhaps she’ll emerge as the feminine counter to his view of contemporary Oz. She does promise her sophomore effort, ‘Hope Farm’, due out this September, will be something entirely different. I’ll await its arrival with much expectation.