Australian · historical fiction · literary

Book Review: Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall

Title: Skylarkingskylarking small.jpg

Author:  Kate Mildenhall

Published: July 31st 2016

Publisher: Black Inc

Pages: 288

Genres:  Fiction, Historical, Literary, Australian

RRP: $24.99

Rating: 5 stars

Kate and Harriet are best friends, growing up together on an isolated Australian cape in the 1880s. As daughters of the lighthouse keepers, the two girls share everything, until a fisherman, McPhail, arrives in their small community. When Kate witnesses the desire that flares between him and Harriet, she is torn by her feelings of envy and longing. But one moment in McPhail’s hut will change the course of their lives forever. 

Inspired by a true story, Skylarking is a stunning debut novel about friendship, love and loss, one that questions what it is to remember and how tempting it can be to forget.

My review:

Skylarking is a book that takes an atmospheric and introspective look at the powerful friendship that forms between two young girls while they come of age on an isolated lighthouse community in the 1880’s. This powerful Australian literary fiction tale is informed significantly on historical fact.

At the centre of this debut historical fiction novel is Kate, the daughter of a lighthouse keeper. Kate shares her life with Harriet, the daughter of the other lighthouse keeper. Together, the best friends endure the loneliness of life near the cape. Everything changes for the two young girls when a fisherman named McPhail arrives in their small seaside community. When a sense of desire and longing begins to flare for Harriet and McPhail, Kate feels left behind. This follows a tragic event in the small hut belonging to McPhail. The event changes the lives of Kate, Harriet and McPhail forever. Skylarking is a devastating novel that captures the feelings of love, friendship and loss of a young girl in her prime.

I recently read Salt Creek, another moving Australian historical fiction novel written by Lucy Treloar. The front cover quote that adorns Skylarking states: “A brave, beautiful and richly textured book that delicately explores the fault lines in love and friendship”. This quote from acclaimed author Lucy Treloar is completely substantiated. Skylarking is an exquisite debut novel that offers one the most powerful examinations into love and friendship I have read for some time.

Often the best historical fiction novels are those that are drawn from figures that existed in our past, or based events that occurred in times gone by. Skylarking is a novel that was inspired by the author’s trip to a camping ground, where by chance she came across an old grave belonging to Harriet Parker. Harriet lived near the lighthouse in the late 1800’s. Kate Mildenhall, a first time novelist, takes this real life figure, time period and location and presents the reader with a reconstruction of the events she believes played out between Kate and Harriet. The result is an exceptional novel that resonated with me.

Readers should be impressed by the skill of the prose presented in this novel. For a first time author Mildenhall displays great poise. Mildenhall’s prose is assured and graceful. I relished the reading experience I was offered through Skylarking. The passages that struck a chord the most for me were the passionately expressed descriptions of the natural surrounding landscape of the isolated cape region in which Kate and Harriet live. Equally colourful are the descriptions that give us a glimpse into the way of life on an isolated cape location. These include treacherous weather conditions, frequent shipwrecks and a lack of opportunity, especially for women residing at the cape.

Skylarking is narrated by Kate Gilbert, one of the main protagonists of the novel. Kate is an expertly drawn character. Mildenhall captures Kate’s wide eyed innocence, her awakening as a burgeoning young woman, her passion and her aspirations to have a life away from the lighthouse. Harriet is presented in equal measure character wise by Mildenhall. Harriet is a less headstrong than Kate but when the mysterious McPhail enters the girl’s lives, Harriet’s heart is opened to love hard and fast. The intensity of these adolescent emotions eventually wreck havoc between the two girls and McPhail, the fallout resulting in a tragic love triangle. McPhail is a significant character in Skylarking and is rendered with a deft hand. Mildenhall builds a strong picture of this stranger and fisherman, who unwittingly becomes embroiled in the lives of the two young girls from the cape.

Mildenhall handles the fateful event that occurs with a thoughtful and reflective tone. I didn’t see the catastrophic event on the horizon at all and the sense of shock it brought to me was unexpected. It took some time for me to get my head around what just occurred, the finality and the sadness of it all. But at the same time, the misunderstandings that arose could have prevented this tragic turn of events. Skylarking is a book that I needed to take a pensive look at once I brought myself to finish the novel. This is an indication of the strength of this novel.

Skylarking is a refined novel and an outstanding addition to the crop of Australian historical fiction novels that have been released in recent times. Mildenhall’s approach to conceptualising what happened to a real life figure Harriet Parker in the 1800’s at the lighthouse community is to be applauded. Skylarking is a stirring title that deserves high acclaim.

Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall was published on July 31st 2016 by Black Inc. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.

To learn more about the author of Skylarking, Kate Mildenhall visit here.




3 thoughts on “Book Review: Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall

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