In love with literary allusions
Cath Crowley is one of Australia’s best writers of young adult fiction. She lives in Victoria and is the author of the brilliant Graffiti Moon, which won a Prime Minister’s Literary Award. Her new novel, Words in Deep Blue (Pan Macmillan, 352pp, $18.99), is also exceptional. It is structured as a dual narrative between Rachel Sweetie and Henry Jones.
Rachel has just moved back to the city after the death of her younger brother Cal but in her grief she can’t tell her old friends what has happened. Even though she excelled in science and maths, she failed Year 12, something she’s also keeping from her former best friend Henry.
Before moving to the ocean Rachel had hoped to spend the evening of the apocalypse, an imagined last night of the world inspired by the Ray Bradbury story, with Henry, whom she finally realised she loved. But Henry chose Amy. Rachel left a letter for him on the page of TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Henry’s favourite poem, but he didn’t even wake up in time to say goodbye.
Henry doesn’t understand why he and Rachel aren’t best friends any more. “It’s a truth universally acknowledged that our family is shit at love.” His parents have separated but still leave letters for each other between the pages of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.
Henry is a poet and loves books to their essence: “It’s not enough to read, I want to talk through the pages to get to the other side.” He slightly fears his goth sister George, who likes post-apocalyptic fiction. She is aggressive because she is shy and different from the girls at school, but seems to be falling in love with ‘‘Pytheas’’, who has been leaving letters for her inside a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
Henry, George and their father live at Howling Books, a dusty second-hand bookshop that has a blue velvet ‘‘fiction couch’’ and a self-help section (where Henry makes out). The heart of the bookshop is the not-for-sale books in the Letter Library. People can underline or circle meaningful sections, write comments or leave letters, to which others may even reply. The family has found bus tickets, leaves, spiders and “dreams” in books. They have to stock multiple copies of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and The Fault in Our Stars because of the overflowing letters.
While dealing with aching characters and themes of grief, time, memory and love, Words in Deep Blue also has moments of humour. It is a celebration of the secrets and mysteries found in books, bookshops and those who frequent them, and is an exquisitely written work for lovers of literature, and other lovers.
Kate Mildenhall’s Skylarking (Black Inc, 288pp, $24.99) is another literary work for young adults. This debut novel by the Victoriabased writer draws on the true story of two girls at Cape St George, Jervis Bay, in 1887. The characters of Kate and Harriet and the windswept cape and rocky setting around the lighthouse become seared into the reader’s consciousness.
The girls have grown up together in the isolated community serving the lighthouse. Younger Kate devours the books sent to Harriet by her aunt and seems to be more forthright, due to her personality but also to compensate for her lesser maturity and beauty.
The setting is reminiscent of ML Stedman’s bestselling adult novel The Light Between Oceans and incidents such as the symbolic beaching of the whale and Harriet’s encounters with an elusive Aboriginal girl become uneasy portents, as does the title Skylarking. The descriptions of the landscape are sensory and visceral, foreshadowing danger:
IS A CELEBRATION OF THE SECRETS FOUND IN BOOKS AND BOOKSHOPS
Below us the rocks looked as if they had crumbled into the sea. To the right there was a river of brown and green glinting in the sunlight, broken glass where the men tipped our rubbish over the edge … The sound of the wind out there was a high whistle in my ears, and I clapped my other hand up to stop the cold prick of it worming into my brain.
Kate likens her tumultuous interior world to her environs. When she and Harriet become infatuated with a newcomer, physically alluring fisherman Daniel McPhail, a further thread of danger twists through this bildungsroman.
Another dangerous love story is Chasing the Stars (Doubleday, 496pp, $32.99) by former British children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, who is well known for her 2001 YA novel about racism, Noughts and Crosses.
Chasing the Stars is a speculative fiction race through space. Set in 2164, it is a reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Othello, with 18-year-old Vee in the leading role. She is captain of a starship in which she travels with her twin brother Aidan. Their parents and the rest of the crew died suddenly due to a virus. Vee loves watching old movies and she and Aidan, while both technologically adept, have complementary skills.
They save a group of drones, mineworkers who are being annihilated by the alien Mazons on a supposedly uninhabited planet. The drones are regarded as subhuman and forced to do menial work. Their leader is Catherine Linedecker, mother of handsome Nathan, who is attracted to Vee. This action-adventure romance is told as a dual narrative by Vee and Nathan.
Allusions to Shakespeare’s other plays are scattered throughout and the tragic elements of Othello escalate once Vee and Nathan marry and misunderstandings and jealousy form a “green-eyed monster”.
Vee’s dark skin is mentioned only briefly, and in a very positive context. The novel does confront the issue of racism and refugees, but it is the aliens, the Mazons, not the Terrans (humans), who are the worst xenophobes.
The plight of refugees and slaves is also explored by Sydney scriptwriter Mardi McConnochie in her new series for younger readers, Escape to the Moon Islands, set in a place called Dux. The first book is Quest of the Sunfish (Allen & Unwin, 352pp, $14.99). Her characters are also forced into a journey but one set in a more familiar world, albeit a flooded one.
The dual narrators are 12-year-old twins, adventurous Will and bookish Annalie, who are threatened after their father, Spinner, is accused of theft and disappears. He is rumoured to be on his way to the Moon Islands. After being interrogated by sinister Avery Beckett, Annalie flees her Admiralty boarding school with her only friend, Essie. The Admiralty has taken control of the post-flood society, creating prescriptive rules and a tiered class system of Admiralty versus the underclass, whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed by the flood and who have been joined by illegal refugees from other flood-ravaged countries.
Will steals the family’s impounded boat, the Sunfish, and the three children escape from the Admiralty in a thrilling chase through a maze of flooded streets. They face cannibals, apes, pirates and a boy stranded on a rocky mountain top in the middle of the ocean.
Issues of climate change, slavery and refugees who aren’t being resettled, as well as insights into the characters’ developing personalities, set Quest of the Sunfish above the usual nautical adventure.
In contrast to the futuristic world of Dux, with its sophisticated communication and other technology, Sydneysider Garth Nix takes us back to the high fantasy world of the Old Kingdom that he first created more than 20 years ago in Sabriel and Lirael. The Old Kingdom is a medieval-inspired world of Free Magic and Charter Magic, and the books are deservedly New York Times bestsellers.
Goldenhand (Allen & Unwin, 400pp, $24.99) is the fifth in the series and Nix is in masterful form. The title refers to Lirael’s new glowing “Charter-spelled” hand. Lirael has advanced from being a reserved Second Assistant Librarian and is now the Abhorsen-in-Waiting who must enter Death with her sword and bells to battle the Witch With No Face. The Witch’s body is “in a sarcophagus beyond the Great Rift”.
The seven bells of the Abhorsen add rich detail to the world-building. They are named and are of different sizes, with different purposes. Saraneth is the deepest sounding bell and binds those in death to the will of its ringer. Paperwings, insubstantial-looking aircraft with hawklike wings made from paper and Charter Magic, are other fine creations. Archetypes from high fantasy such as the quest, talisman, hero (mainly female here) and battle between good and evil are skilfully integrated.
Lirael, who is unsure how to make friends or lovers, is reunited with injured Nicholas Sayre and must take him to the librarians at the Clayr’s Glacier for healing. The atmospheric descriptions of her former home help build a strong profile of Lirael and how she has grown into being an Abhorsen hero of the Kingdom. Lirael and Nick are clearly destined for each other but they must overcome their misconceptions and awkwardness.
Goldenhand, like the other stories here, allegorises the plight of refugees. It also offers a deeply satisfying romance.