The Silent Kookaburra by Liza Perrat is a hauntingly poignant story, set in small town Australia primarily in 1973 and told through the voice of eleven year old Tanya Randall. Perrat does not shy away from dark subject matter such as paedophilia, mental illness and bereavement but she offsets the horror with her lyrical, almost poetic writing.
From the opening page, Perrat evokes in her reader an uneasy ominous tension as the middle-aged Tanya is going through her grandmother’s things and finds a newspaper clipping from January 26th 1973. As Tanya’s memories are invoked, we are left in no doubt that this date was catastrophic for the family and this foreshadowing hangs over the rest of the novel.
One of the most effective aspects of the novel is the way that eleven year old Tanya relates her childhood through her own innocent eyes whilst the reader has a more knowing perspective. Consequently the story takes on an added dimension as the reader has more idea of what is actually happening than the young narrator. We read with a sense of dread, knowing what is about to unfold as she is unable to process what she is telling us.
This sense of tension is increased as Perrat sets events to a backdrop of unbearable heat which heightens the emotions of the characters adding to the reader’s sense of foreboding. There are also constant references to Australia’s history and the idea that everything is built on the blood of convicts which leaves it tainted. Tanya and her parents and grandmother live in Gumtree Cottage which Nanna Purvis believes is cursed as a result of being built by convicts, “built on blood money”. It’s also significant that January 26th which becomes so fateful for the family is Australia Day which marks the anniversary of convict ships arriving in Sydney.
The power of this novel comes from Perrat’s skill at characterisation. Tanya is heartbreakingly real – a vulnerable, lonely girl, bullied and called “Ten-ton Tanya” by the other kids. She’s caught in the vicious cycle of comfort eating and then hating herself for being overweight. As the reader helplessly watches Tanya teetering on the brink of disaster it’s almost too much to bear.
The fact that the novel is set in 1973 highlights the way the world has changed and, despite the dark undertones, anyone who survived the 70s will find much humour in the realistic depiction. For example the casual use of Valium which is handed around like Smarties and the nips of Sherry given to children for medicinal purposes. Not to mention a diet which basically consists of biscuits and sugar.
A product of her time is Nanna Purvis, a hilariously irreverent character. Her malapropisms such as calling her varicose veins “very cows veins” and the no-nonsense often course way she views the world made me laugh uncontrollably. My favourite line is when she dismisses Tanya’s nemesis and chief bully Stacy Mornon with, “Wasn’t her head too big for her mother’s fanny?” Typical of her time, Nanna Purvis is racist, casually referring to an Italian family as “dirty eyeties,” this reflects the tensions that were rife as Australia became more multi-cultural.
Perrat uses her novel to tackle some very serious issues, most notably paedophilia. I found it particularly affecting how she uses Tanya’s perspective to emphasise the complexities of grooming. Tanya is singled out because she is vulnerable and the paedophile exploits her vulnerabilities to manipulate her whilst successfully inserting himself into her family. I think Perrat does a great job of portraying the pervasive nature of child abuse and the reasons why it so often goes unreported.
The novel also explores mental illness in the shape of Tanya’s mother, Eleanor. At a time when very little was understood about mental health and treatment was limited, Eleanor’s manic depression is worsened by grief and Perrat describes her descent into madness in a vivid and believable way. We also see how mental illness effects the whole family as Tanya’s entire childhood is defined by her mother’s black moods which hang over the house making her feel like “The Invisible Girl.”
Tanya’s childhood is a real childhood rather than the imagined, idealised ones that are often depicted in fiction. Children are brutally cruel and the bullying and name calling is relentless. Tanya has no control over her life whatsoever and is at the mercy of her parents’ actions and behaviour. Her only friend is Angela Moretti who is also ostracised because she is Italian.
The novel ends as it began with the middle-aged Tanya bringing the reader up to date with her life. The ending for me was a complete sucker punch as Perrat lulled me into believing that she had opted for the fairytale finale only to deliver a final blow that left me reeling.
The Silent Kookaburra is a novel that I can’t recommend highly enough. It’s an intelligent portrayal of real life with all its flaws that will leave you thinking long after you’ve finished reading it.