We started up, all the ordinary evening songs for putting babies to sleep, for farewelling, for soothing broke-hearted people - all the ones everyone knew so well that they’d long ago made ruder versions and joke-songs of them. We sang them plain, following Mumma’s lead; we sang them straight, into Ikky’s glistening eyes, as the tar climbed her chin. We stood tall, so as to see her, and she us, as her face became the sunken centre of that giant flower, the wreath. Dash’s little drum held us together and kept us singing, as Ik’s eyes rolled and she struggled for breath against the pressing tar, as the chief and the husband’s family came and stood across from us, shifting from foot to foot, with torches raised to watch her sink away.
Margo Lanagan, "Singing My Sister Down", 2004, from Black Juice (pirated copy available online here)
They turn her to face the crowd, they display her to her neighbours and her family, to the people who held her hands as she learned to walk, taught her to dip her bread in the pot and wipe her lips, to weave a basket and gut a fish. She has played with the children who now peep at her from behind their mothers, has murmured prayers for them as they were being born. She has been one of them, ordinary. Her brother and sisters watch her flinch as the men take the blade, lift the pale hair on the left side of her head and cut it away. They scrape the skin bare. She doesn't look like one of them now. She shakes. They tuck the hair into the rope around her wrists.
Sarah Moss, The Ghost Wall, 2018
The bog skin is becoming her skin, the heavy-earthed water cool against the burning tight of the rope. The cold bog blood surges and flows in her, around her as her own seeps and blends. Voices are whispering in her ears now, on her tongue now, filling the night sky with warbled callings and seeings, with the knowings and tellings of those gone before. The stick twisting the collar tight around her neck loosens, just enough to keep the veil between the worlds open for a little more ...
Zana Fraillon and Bren MacDibble, The Raven's Song, 2022
In her truly excellent review of The Raven's Song, Rachael King observes that she came of age in an era when cultural production was dominated by the threat of nuclear war: Z for Zacariah, Children of the Dust, even Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows. With today's children facing an arguably even more terrifying future of climate catastrophe, King asks: "How do you write about this stuff for children without subjecting them to the nightmares we experienced as kids?".
King then recaps the thinking of several leading children's writers (honestly, this essay is a reading list, a writing treatise and book review all wrapped into one, Rachael's Newsroom reviews last year were just killer and I sincerely hope 2023 brings more of them): Patrick Ness's observations about the dark emotional worlds teenagers already live in themselves -
darkness is where teenagers dwell, and if you ignore that “you’re leaving a teenager to face that by themselves,” says Ness. “I think that’s immoral.”
- Joan Aitken's advice that if characters in a children's book must dwell on some lesson, make it snappy; Katherine Rundell -
"children’s fiction necessitates distillation: at its best, it renders in their purest, most archetypal forms hope, hunger, joy, fear. Think of children’s books as literary vodka."
Or as Margo Lanagan said in an interview about her tender and brutal book Tender Morsels, which centres on incest and rape:
When it comes down to it, an explicit sex scene takes as much calculation and care as a restrained one. With either story [the interviewer had asked her about Tender Morsels vs a short story written for adult readers], I’m thinking more of the demands of the story than those of the audience. It wasn’t so much the YA audience that made Tender Morsels take the form it did. If I’d made all the rape and incest explicit, it would have become a rape-and-incest book; those events would have overwhelmed the story that I wanted to tell, which was about Liga hiding from the world in her personal heaven, and the effect that had on herself and her daughters. Suggesting that she had been through hell was enough; I didn’t need to put the audience through hell with her, whatever age they were.
The Raven's Song, then, as King concludes, "a masterclass in writing dark, difficult material for a child reader" and "a complex middle grade novel about terrible things, at once sad and joyful, foreboding and hopeful, and a lot less devastating than some dystopian books for older readers".
The book weaves together three timelines; an ancient moment, in which a girl is sacrificed in a bog, setting the chain of events into Long Time motion; an around-now, when a boy named Phoenix and his siblings are mourning their mother on the brink of a pandemic outbreak; and a near-term-ish future, where Shelby Jones and her best friend Davey are two of exactly 350 people living on exactly 700 hectares of fenced-off land: in reverse of our contemporary conservation moment, to allow the earth to regenerate human populations have (following a massive pandemic-related culling) been placed into closed communities, living 'kindly and ethical" low-tech lives, in zero-pollution conditions, so that the "honoured and natural world" can recover.
A hole in the perimeter fence leads Shelby and Davey out of their cloistered environment (and cloistered world view) and exposes them to their society's history, a massively expanded reality, and danger. In the tradition of the best child heroes, they are brave and curious, straining at the limits of what they know and what adults have told them is necessary for their own - and the communities' - good.
You could class The Raven's Song as an eco-thriller, I guess: it also has moments that have enough horror to reach my (admittedly, very low) tolerance. Phoenix has hallucinations that cross over into the real world ("Emotional reactivity to trauma," the doctor calls it. ... "Your sixth sense!" Gran calls it, and she talks about the great gift passed down through generations of their family.) and there is one recurrent motif that frankly gave me the shits:
Phoenix looked but there weren't any angels at all. Just a bunch of small, raggedy people with floppy, torn cardboard wings tied on with string, and little toy trumpets in their hands, all lined up with their snotty noses pressed at the windows waiting to get in. That was the first time Phoenix had seen something so strange that he knew it couldn't possibly be there. They aren't real, he told himself over and over as the angels banged on the window, louder and louder. They aren't real, and he ran around the house locking every window and pulling every curtain closed and when he got back to the kitchen his mum had just ... just stopped.
The Raven's Song is complexly plotted and the co-authors land the ending in a way that has all the satisfaction of nailing a tricky beam dismount. There's a rewarding set of detective-like clues that are resolved in the final pages, which I imagine would give attentive young readers that righteous sense of pay-off. Genuinely scary, transporting and empathetic.
The book is also causing me to depart from my summer reading stack. Last night I re-read Lanagan's Singing My Sister Down which is just a perfect piece of writing, and I've returned today to Ghost Wall (it's almost impossible not to). I've added Mal Peet's Life: An Exploded Diagram as a re-read to my sub-stack of books to take on the road at the end of the week - not because it bears any resemblance to The Raven's Song but because of King's discussion of those Cold War era children's books, which it so masterfully riffs off. It's a joy to have the time to let reading spool out like this, opening up the exploratory areas of my brain again after a working year of solving problems.