In love with lit­er­ary al­lu­sions

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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