‘The sky was clear and blue forever that day. Clear and blue and so bright. Sunlight fell through the leaves, forming dark shadows and spots so blindingly white they forced me to look away.’
With the opening words of Skylarking, Kate Mildenhall had me spellbound and I knew I was safe in the hands of a masterful storyteller. This novel entranced and enchanted me, holding me in its delicate grasp from start to end … and I really didn’t want to end …
It is based on a real historical event and people living in a small lighthouse community on the east coast of Australia in the 1880s. Rather reflective of her opening sentences, Mildenhall brings a wonderful chiaroscuro light and dark to this tale. The lens through whom events are narrated, is the head lighthouse keeper’s daughter, Kate Gilbert. From the outset we are aware of the claustrophobic intensity of relationships in the lighthouse community, but never more more so than between Kate and her only other female friend, Harriet Walker, daughter of the assistant lighthouse keeper. Despite their characters being so contrasting – Kate is headstrong and yearns for adventure, Harriet is ‘domestic’ and bordering on prissy – they are the closest of friends and share everything. At the outset, their world is bright and innocent and full of childish fun.
The relationship between the two girls falters when enigmatic fisherman, Daniel McPhail takes up residence in a nearby cove. On the brink of womanhood, Kate’s insecurities about her own development and femininity, and her fear of being ‘left behind’ by Harriet, both physically and geographically, muddies the relationship between them. You can almost feel the undercurrents tugging, as the bonds between them start to fray. What unfolds is a terrible tragedy, but not at all what you might expect.
Kate Mildenhall does a brilliant job of building tension and drama, luring you in towards the treacherous end. Her complex characters are riven with turbulent, conflicting emotions; they are endearing because of their honesty.
Skylarking is a powerful story about friendship and growing up, love and loss. It casts an illuminating beam across history, that resonates today: the turbulence of teenage years and the blink of an eye in which anyone’s course may founder.
I loved this novel even though I felt emotionally wrung out by the end.