All eleven-year-old Tanya Randall wants is a happy family. But Mum does nothing besides housework, Dad’s always down the pub and Nanna Purvis moans at everyone except her dog. Then Shelley arrives –– the miracle baby who fuses the Randall family in love for their little gumnut blossom.
Tanya’s life gets even better when she meets an uncle she didn’t know she had. He tells her she’s beautiful and could be a model. Her family refuses to talk about him. But that’s okay, it’s their little secret.
Then one blistering summer day tragedy strikes, and the surrounding mystery and suspicion tear apart this fragile family web.
Embracing the social changes of 1970s Australia, against a backdrop of native fauna and flora, The Silent Kookaburra is a haunting exploration of the blessings, curses and tyranny of memory.
The Silent Kookaburra is a touching, troubling and at times challenging story narrated by eleven year old Tanya. She is at the heart of the book, that relates the tale of a her dysfunctional family in small town Wollongong, Australia in the early 1970’s. Against a background of her mother’s repeated miscarriages; her father’s drinking; her grandmother’s sniping and playground jibes about her weight and appearance, Tanya appears to have a resilience that belies her years. When a baby sister finally appears, life would appear to be about to change, and it does, only not in a way that she, or anyone else could have envisaged.
It is a moving and compulsive read that explores emotional and difficult issues that as a society we often tend to shy away from discussing, such as recurrent miscarriage, post natal depression, alcoholism, bereavement and self-esteem. It is a sensitive and I would say, realistic portrayal of a family in crisis. It’s made more touching because we are seeing it through a child’s eyes, but with our adult perception of what is really happening. In addition it does have a darker subtext of grooming, though initially that is something that as adults we are more cognizant of than Tanya, who is the target of a predatory ‘black sheep’ Uncle. For anyone else, who like me, who would normally prefer to avoid the subject of paedophilia, I will say, that while at times it did get dark and I definitely felt uncomfortable, it never crossed boundaries that I couldn’t cope with. The topic was to a degree made ‘worse’ because we could see with foreboding what Tanya was too young to understand.
While it might seem from what has been written, a rather unsettling and dark read, given it’s themes, the author cleverly balances the shade with lighter episodes and comic interludes. The curmudgeonly, racist and homophobic Nana Purvis is also a brilliant comic character with a range of irreverent put downs and malapropisms that lighten the mood. Similarly adding light is the grumpy neighbour, Old Lenny with his habit of turning up with something from his garage that he invariable got cheap from a mate. While it might seem, that Tanya’s life is not the happiest, she still has her indomitable Nanna and the redeeming friendship of Angela, whose Italian family, embrace her as one of the family, feed her, care for her and in more ways than one prove to be her salvation.
Although I have no knowledge of 1970’s Australia, the themes of small town life, and the prevailing social norms seemed universal, and they were very reminiscent of 1970’s Britain. The time and place were brilliantly described, the casual institutionalised racism and homophobia of the older generation as society became more multi-cultural felt very familiar. The references to food, sweets, biscuits, magazines and tv programmes also served to add to the authenticity of the period.
I’m not sure how I would categorise this book, in exploring the very realistic portrayal of a family in crisis, it is part psychological drama, part mystery and part nostalgia but the whole is an unsettling, but emotive and compelling read that had me gripped, right through to the end.
With thanks to the author for a review copy to enable this impartial review.