When the Lyrebird Calls

Kim Kane

When the Lyrebird Calls
Allen & Unwin
26 October 2016

When the Lyrebird Calls

Kim Kane

When Madeleine is shipped off to stay with her eccentric grandmother for the holidays, she expects the usual: politics, early-morning yoga, extreme health food, and lots of hard work. Instead, Madeleine tumbles back in time to 1900, where the wealthy Williamson family takes her into their home, Lyrebird Muse…

At a time when young girls have no power and no voice, set against a backdrop of the struggles for emancipation, federation and Aboriginal rights, Madeleine must find a way to fit in with the Williamson family’s four sisters - beautiful, cold Bea; clever, awkward Gert; adventurous, rebellious Charlie; and darling baby Imo - as she searches desperately for a way home…

Meanwhile, the Williamson girls’ enchanting German cousin, Elfriede, arrives on the scene on a heavenly wave of smoke and cinnamon, and threatens to shatter everything…


Time-slips are a brilliant way to absorb history through fiction while being on a marvellous adventure and, on a deeper level, confronting issues of identity. When The Lyrebird Calls stays true to favourites from the past such as Playing Beatie Bow, rather like the lyrebird itself, that remarkable creature who expertly reproduces the sounds it hears. But Kane goes deeper than reproduction, putting a thoughtful, political, contemporary Australian spin on a much-loved genre and proving that it is crucial for our reading of time-slips to – pardon the expression – move with the times.

Madeleine, a mature, sporty 12-year-old who rolls her eyes at most things, finds herself in a wealthy household of four sisters. She’s befriended by the sharpest, most neglected of the girls, Gert, who struggles to find her place in this chaotic family (chaotic for all its strict rules and stern ‘Nanny’). Only Gert knows where Madeleine has come from. Together they concoct a feasible story to avoid being thought mad and packed off to the asylum. Meanwhile, the adults of the household are in conflict over the political thoughts of the day, particularly suffragism, and family secrets underlie the mother’s pervasive sadness.

Confident readers of 10–14 will find this a rich and lively experience, full of interesting references, with a feminist backbone and a sense of fun alongside its important messages.

Emily Gale

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