A young girl stands alone in a vast, dusty red landscape. No sound apart from her quiet breath, no people, no roads, just emptiness beneath an azure sky. She is wearing only one shoe, and carrying a locked metallic box that she cannot open. Three questions nag at her exhausted brain, ‘Where am I? What am I doing here?,’ and most worryingly, ‘Who am I?’. We find out in The Song Walker by Zillah Bethell, a twisty and evocative tale of song, sisterhood and spirituality set in the Australian outback.
With the outback covering literally millions of square kilometres, the odds are stacked against our lost girl encountering other human beings, and yet she is set to cross paths with several characters, the first and most important being a young indigenous girl named Tarni, whose sudden appearance and slingshot prowess saves her from the sinuous clutches of a lethal snake. Feisty and sceptical, Tarni tells her that she looks like a city girl in her expensive dress. She bequeaths her the temporary name of Moonflower, and the pair begin to form a bond under the searing antipodean sun.
Moonflower learns that the outback is populated by the wandering spirits of indigenous ancestors, who use ancient songlines to find their way. Singing their own way across the land, the girls travel immeasurable miles in distance and melody, and haunted by dreams and snatches of memory, Moonflower begins to piece together her past.
Meanwhile, a search is under way for this ‘special’ city girl, who is being missed in the way no indigenous contemporary would be. Police, reward hunters and the Australian media are on their trail but the brutal and beautiful outback has some lessons to deliver first.
This wonderful tale can be complemented by the Usborne Publishing Quicklinks website where young readers can listen to a First Country elder sing a songline and explore the ancient wonders of this incredible landscape.
If you like this, see our review of The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell.
The Song Walker by Zillah Bethell is published by Usborne Publishing, 368 pages.