Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall
It is hard to believe that Skylarking is Kate Mildenhall’s debut novel, as her ability to create both character and atmosphere is impressive. Skylarking is set on a remote Australian cape in the 1880s, and narrated by Kate Gilbert, daughter of the lighthouse keeper. Kate is inseparable from her best friend, Harriet, daughter of the lighthouse assistant, and two years her senior. Together they attend a rudimentary school until each turns fifteen, and embark on walks, picnics and horse rides. Kate is the daring one; though she loves the isolated cape, she dreams of adventures far afield. It is Kate who reads the books Harriet’s aunt sends for her in the monthly supply ship, and she falls in love with literature. Kate is rich in imagination, and feels increasingly constrained by the household chores her mother imposes on her.
As Kate enters puberty, she senses she is embarking on a new world – one to which Harriet has already been privy, but has kept secret from her. Kate’s growing awareness of the men within their midst – particularly the new and mysterious fisherman, McPhail – brings friction to the friendship. Kate witnesses romantic tension between McPhail and Harriet, although Harriet denies any feelings for him. Harriet’s mother organises for Harriet to go to Melbourne for three months, to meet potential suitors, and Kate is conflicted with jealousy and loss. For the first time she begins to wonder about her own future – and if she will ever escape the cape.
Female friendship is a hot topic in literature at the moment, but in Skylarking the friendship is brought into sharp focus due to the isolation of the pair from broader society. The prologue foretells of a catastrophic event, and the novel is beautifully paced and tense leading to this moment. Kate is a wonderful literary character – chafing against the expectations of her gender in the 1880s, and wondering what is possible for her beyond the roles of wife and mother.
An intriguing fact: Mildenhall has loosely based the novel on real life events at the Cape St George Lighthouse in Jervis Bay. This is a great book club choice, and one for fans of Favel Parrett and Hannah Kent.
Annie Condon is a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.