Kate and Harriet are best friends, growing up together on an isolated Australian cape in the 1880s. As daughters of the lighthouse keepers, the two girls share everything, until a fisherman, McPhail, arrives in their small community. When Kate witnesses the desire that flares between him and Harriet, she is torn by her feelings of envy and longing. But one moment in McPhail’s hut will change the course of their lives forever.
Inspired by a true story, Skylarking is a stunning debut novel about friendship, love and loss, one that questions what it is to remember and how tempting it can be to forget.
I hadn’t heard of this remarkable novel until quite recently when I came across an interview on the HNSA Blog, whereby the author, Kate Mildenhall, told of the inspiration behind Skylarking. While on a camping trip, she stumbled upon an old grave; it belonged to Harriet Parker, a young woman growing up at a remote lighthouse on the Australian coast in the 1880s. Skylarking reimagines the lives of Harriet, and her best friend Kate, and the tragedy that befalls them. I was so taken by this single point of inspiration that I immediately ordered the novel as soon as I had finished reading the interview.
Skylarking is one of those rare novels, the kind that seep into your consciousness and stay there, night after night while you’re reading and then long after you’ve finished. It’s hard to believe that Skylarking is Kate Mildenhall’s debut novel. She has such a solid, yet beautiful grip on the English language. So uncomplicated, yet always saying so much. I lingered over this novel, re-reading sections and generally taking my time over it in a way that I rarely do.
The story is for the most part, a delightful one. Details of Kate’s and Harriet’s upbringing on the cape; a childhood of freedom and play, largely uninhibited by the strictures of 19th century living. It’s not until the girls are 15 and 17, that these societal expectations begin to infringe upon them, and their relationship with each other. Kate Mildenhall masterfully threaded the lines of discontent, so subtlety woven, and even though the entire novel is presented from Kate’s point of view, the reader gets a true sense of Harriet’s character and is able to form a complete picture of both girls. Their teenage wondering, at the change in their emotions, their bodies, their feelings about others; the intensity was all so familiar, that even though they were teenagers more than a hundred years ago, these responses meant they were truly accessible as characters and could have been teenagers today. This aspect of the novel was so well done.
I particularly liked the way life on the cape was articulated. There was a casual manner to the style of living, yet a hardness also, an inference that life on the cape was not for everyone. Certainly, Kate was depicted as being more hardy than Harriet, a point that Kate herself even acknowledged. Even so, it was a lifestyle that was infinitely preferable to the city, and both girls mourned the nearing of the end of it, the expectation that they were growing up and would soon be leaving hanging heavy in the atmosphere. The spiritual connection between Kate and the Aboriginal girl, who was never named, was a beautiful addition to the story. I was quite moved by the release of Kate’s grief while in the company of this girl. Despite a language, cultural, and class barrier, these two girls bonded over a moment of shared understanding and it was quite stunning.
I don’t want to go into too much more detail because I’d hate to spoil the novel. I read it without knowing anything in advance about the tragic angle and I think that’s the best way to read it. Once I finished it though, I was amazed by how contemplative the story was. With hindsight, I reflected back on key moments of Kate’s and Harriet’s relationship and like a kaleidoscope turned ever so slightly, the picture I thought I had conjured up was now not quite so straightforward. I think Harriet was in love with Kate, her best friend. I also think Kate was entirely without artifice and consequently, she missed many signs of admiration, from both Albert and McPhail, and she also misread the intensity of Harriet’s love, so much so, that it took her by surprise when she finally saw it and it clouded her judgement in the most devastating way possible. Cue that teenage intensity once more, depicted with painful perfection in the sharpest of realities. I’d be keen to hear what other readers thought about this, not so much while reading, but after, in the contemplative haze that often comes from finishing a brilliant novel.
I really can’t recommend this novel highly enough. It’s a beautifully moving story, Australian historical fiction at its finest and a novel that I envisage as a classic in years to come.
Skylarking is book 22 of my 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.