I love stories from other settings and cultures and this is one of the best I have read in quite some time. Lots of new books receive plenty of ‘book chat’ on social media but none more so than this one. It has been raved about on all social media platforms and I was excited to read it to see if it lived up to all of the hype.
Orphaned child Blue Wing is desperate to be a shark caller like Siringen, her waspapi, but he will not let her. The skill of shark calling is rooted in tradition and should only be passed down from uncle to nephew. Siringen also knows the reason for Blue Wing’s desperation to call sharks - to gain revenge on the shark that caused the death of her parents two years ago.
Blue Wing’s simple life is turned upside down with the arrival of two American tourists, Atlas Hamelin and his daughter Maple. Siringen is entrusted with accompanying Atlas who wants to search for coral on the island and Blue Wing is left with Maple. Maple is rude, obnoxious and is unimpressed with what the island has to offer and Blue Wing is full of resentment that the tourists have been given the home she used to live in with her parents to stay in. But as the two girls learn more about each other they come to realise that they share much in common and together they might just be able to get what they both want from the island.
Inspired by Zillah Bethell’s own upbringing, the island of Papua New Guinea is brought alive through evocative descriptions and an emotional narrative set against the most glorious of ocean backdrops. It is a wonderful assault on the senses as Bethell vividly captures the sights, sounds and smells and truly immerses the reader in island life.
The story, that is told through the eyes of Blue Wing and often uses Papuan Pidgin English, is largely about two young girls who are battling with their emotions. Both Blue Wing and Maple are experiencing grief - mourning the loss of a loved one - and are living under a heavy could of guilt. Their clash of cultures and frosty relationship eventually gives way to a sisterly bond as the two learn about each other’s suffering and seek to forgive themselves for the death of loved ones that they feel responsible for. Both girls need to find a way to move on and to put life above death. Alongside the girls struggles, Atlas is facing his own battles. What exactly he is doing on the island becomes more of a mystery as his actions become more suspicious. He is looking for something but it may not be the coral. He is mourning the loss of his wife and he too is looking for a way to move on.
The read is also a celebration of sharks, an often much feared creature. I found myself falling in love with this powerful ocean dweller and can see how they are misunderstood. The second time that Blue Wing confronts ‘Xok’, the shark responsible for the death of her parents, in the ocean was both heart-breaking and uplifting.
Bethell explores big themes in this book - she tackles issues of life, death, grief, acceptance and moving on. All important subjects but ones that some young readers may find distressing, particularly if they are going through the loss of a loved one.
I adored the island setting and the descriptive prose reminded me of the likes of Kiran Millwood Hargrave (The Island at the End of Everything) and Michael Morpurgo (Kensuke’s Kingdom). I loved the juxtaposition of island traditions and western influences. The two characters who remain rooted in the traditions of the island are wonderful too - Chimera and Siringen - the witch doctor and the shark caller. The last two of their people as everyone around them has moved on but they remain true to their beliefs and their way of life.
Bethell has the reader in the palm of her hand for the entirety of the read, she builds up to a finale that will take the breath away and then leave you in tears. A profound and deeply moving read and one that will remain in the memory for a long time, or in the words of Blue Wing, “the long now.”
Recommended for 9+.
With huge thanks to Usborne Publishing and Zillah Bethell for the advanced reader copy that was received through Netgalley.