I’ve unleashed the psyche triplets today to examine the Good, the Sad and the Quirky of Kim Kane’s new release, middle grade homage to classic Aussie time-slip literature, When the Lyrebird Calls. Time-slip novels seem to be non-indigenous Australia’s way of “doing” fantasy, considering that we don’t really have any native fairy-type folk outside of indigenous Dreaming stories, and as many non-indigenous Australians know very little about indigenous Dreaming stories (myself included), time-slipping back to the early days of colonisation (or invasion, depending on your perspective) provides a serviceable substitute. Anyway, we received a copy of this one from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
When Madeleine is shipped off to stay with her eccentric grandmother for the holidays, she expects the usual: politics, early-morning yoga, extreme health food, and lots of hard work. Instead, Madeleine tumbles back in time to 1900, where the wealthy Williamson family takes her into their home, Lyrebird Muse.
At a time when young girls have no power and no voice, set against a backdrop of the struggles for emancipation, federation and Aboriginal rights, Madeleine must find a way to fit in with the Williamson family’s four sisters – beautiful, cold Bea; clever, awkward Gert; adventurous, rebellious Charlie; and darling baby Imo – as she searches desperately for a way home.
Meanwhile, the Williamson girls’ enchanting German cousin, Elfriede, arrives on the scene on a heavenly wave of smoke and cinnamon, and threatens to shatter everything…
When the Lyrebird Calls is essentially a story about women and girls; the ways in which their lives have been shaped and directed by the expectations of society and the ways in which they have rebelled, quietly and personally or loudly and publicly, as the case may be. Madeleine is a sporty girl, her grandmother a hippy, yoga-loving, clean-eating independent sort, and the girls from the historical period of the story are variously tomboyish, ladylike and completely ignored. Much of the plot arc involves Madeleine coming to an understanding of how the lives of these historical women differ from her own, and how much she owes to the personal sacrifice of the women that have come before her. Kane has done a great job of highlighting the pertinent issues of the time – and in particular, the suffragist movement – without labouring the point in an overtly teachy sort of way. Many of the finer points around women’s social power are revealed through family dynamics and the quiet upheaval that takes place when the German cousin Elfriede comes into the picture. Overall, the story hangs together quite well, with loose ends from the beginning of the story (set in the current time period) tied up by the end of Madeleine’s historic adventure.
Only two things brought this book down for me. One was the pacing: the historical period of the story moves along quite sedately and with much decorum, punctuated with a few moments of pinafore-ruffling action, but I was hoping for a few more near-misses or instances where Madeleine felt in danger, or at least in danger of being discovered as an interloper from the future. This is just a personal preference though, and others might find the pace perfectly suits the setting.
The other thing that annoyed me slightly was the fact that the author obviously wanted to highlight issues of racism in the historical period, but kept signposting the fact by having Madeleine take particular note every time somebody did or said something racist (albeit typical of the historical period). These instances did feel a bit overtly didactic, and somewhat out of keeping with the authenticity of the story. Obviously, in order to authentically recreate the historical period, societal attitudes, however unsavoury, have to be recreated also, but most of the instances of racism seemed to be included simply to say, “Look! People in the past were overtly racist all of the time!” Ezra, the indigenous servant/groundsman/horseman of the family seemed to serve little purpose other than as a reference point for Madeleine to note that (a) people are racist toward him and (b) she hasn’t actually ever spoken to an indigenous person before. This second point could probably have been the basis for a meaningful bit of learning for Madeleine once she returns home from the past, but is never mentioned again, with greater emphasis being placed on the issue of women’s rights.
The most interesting thing about this book is the fact that it is being marketed as being “in the tradition of Playing Beatie Bow“, the Australian classic time-slip tale by Ruth Park. You can see by comparing the covers of the two books that there has been a conscious attempt to connect the two in the minds of readers:
Good old Beatie was a set text for many primary school kids of the era, so perhaps the marketing gurus are counting on adult readers (and particularly teachers!) making the link and picking up Kane’s tome, but apart from the few obvious similarities, the two books could be read as companion novels, rather than one being a straight re-telling or re-imagining of the other. While Park’s story took place in the slummy environment of The Rocks, with a Scottish immigrant family and constant threats of being beaten yeller and green, Kane’s story is set in the grand house of an upper-class family of ladies. The romance theme of Park’s work is missing from Kane’s story (thank the Lord!) and When the Lyrebird Calls is lacking the dark, gritty atmosphere and almost ghost-story quality of Playing Beatie Bow. This is probably a good thing if, like me, the front cover of Park’s book and the eerie skipping-rhyme poem gave you the heebie jeebies as a kid. Canny teachers will no doubt be pleased to have a newer time-slip story of the same historical period to introduce to their students, either alongside or as a substitute for the original classic.
If you are a fan of historical fiction, particularly in a book targeted at upper primary, lower secondary readers, I would definitely recommend giving When the Lyrebird Calls a go.
Until next time,