The Magpie Wing by Max Easton
Max Easton is the creator of the brilliant podcast Barely Human, which explores the underground music scene and the musicians who fascinate him. (The episodes on Randy Newman, Poly Styrene and R.L. Burnside are well worth checking out.) Music is also at the heart of Easton’s debut novel, The Magpie Wing, which focuses on three teenagers living in the western suburbs of Sydney in the late 1990s. Walt and Duncan first meet as kids on a rugby league field, and Duncan soon becomes Walt’s protector on the field and off. As someone who barely acknowledges rugby league as a sport, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this portion of the book, but Easton’s passion for and knowledge of the subject make it both moving and illuminating to read.
Rounding out the triangle is Walt’s sister Helen. Like most older siblings in literature and life, she leads the way and influences her younger brother. Her musical obsessions, rampant drunkenness and burgeoning sexuality lead her to move out of the family home, starting the siblings’ journey through a series of share houses, squats and sheds in inner-city Sydney. Easton’s characterisation of Helen is deft and deeply explored, brought to life on the page with sympathy. For me, she was the most fully realised and interesting person in the whole novel.
We follow these three characters as they navigate adolescence and their early 20s, moving from the sporting fields of Western Sydney to the clubs, sex, drugs and music scene of their early adulthood. Easton’s deep knowledge of music and all of its life- changing intricacies are woven throughout the book without any hint of pontification or name-dropping. I suspect The Magpie Wing will appeal more to the music fan than the sports fan, and while its roots are tied to Sydney, I think that as Victorians we need to overcome our distaste for the primitive game and allow ourselves the pleasure of reading this extremely interesting first novel.