This book was selected as the February book for a feminist book club I go to. I hadn’t heard of it before, but it had me at the word “lighthouse”. I absolutely adore the title and the book has a beautiful cover.
“Skylarking” is a debut historical novel by Kate Mildenhall. Based on a true story and set in late 1800s Australia, this book is about two girls who live in a small settlement at Cape St George in Jervis Bay, NSW. Kate’s father is the head lighthouse keeper while Harriet’s father is his second. Kate is younger, darker and interested in knowledge while Harriet is older, fairer and sweeter. They are inseparable friends – closer to each other than Kate is to any of her siblings. However as they grow up and start facing the realities and expectations of their time, it becomes increasingly apparent to Kate that their idyllic, isolated life together is about to change forever.
This is a beautifully written story about the infinitely complex relationship between two best friends. Mildenhall captures the intricacy, the passion, the tension and the confusion of Kate’s friendship with Harriet and the subtle changes as they both grow into teenagers. I really liked how Mildenhall dealt with Kate’s frustration at being relegated to domestic chores when she loved to read, ride horses and study maps with her father. I felt like it was a heartfelt but realistic interpretation of gender inequality at the time. I also really Mildenhall’s depiction of the anxiety, fluidity and complexity of teenage romantic and sexual awakening.
I think there were only two things that bugged me a bit about this story. The first was that I felt like the ending was a bit flat. I felt like it should have been a sharper, swifter finish to a story that had built up over many chapters. All the speculation up until the historically event (which I won’t mention because of spoilers) seemed like it was spot on, but the story sort of petered out and the speculation afterwards just didn’t seem to have the same oomph. Maybe that was the more accurate interpretation, but I’m not sure it was the more satisfying one. The second thing that bugged me was Mildenhall’s treatment of her Aboriginal characters. I thought she did a really great job of shining a light on Kate and her family’s own prejudices and complacency. However, when it came to actually engaging with the character of the Aboriginal girl, I felt like Mildenhall fell into the trap of the Noble Savage trope. The Aboriginal girl seemed to solely exist to help Kate with her spiritual dilemma and journey towards tolerance and once those purposes had been filled, the girl was discarded.
This is a compelling, thought-provoking novel that generated quite a lot of goosebumps for me while I was reading it. A really excellent debut novel that shows that truth quite often is stranger than fiction.