This novel hit the bookstores with a bang and much has already been written about it, so I won’t repeat too much of the story. In a nutshell, it’s about seven-year-old Millie Bird, whose mother has abandoned her in a department store following the death of her father. There she meets the widower, Karl the Touch Typist, who wants to escape from his nursing home. Millie also meets her neighbour, Agatha Pantha, who has anger issues and has not left her home since she was widowed a few years’ earlier. Together, this unlikely trio embark on a train journey across the continent to find Millie’s mother.
Brooke Davis began writing the book two years’ after her mother’s untimely death in 2007 and it explores the issues of death and ageing.
There are many things I loved about this book. Firstly, the prose. The metaphors and unique observations of young Millie are so unexpected and original, yet so perfect, that I wanted to highlight something on every page.
For example, this is Millie talking about Karl:
‘The dimples on his cheeks are waking up.’
And Agatha describing her husband’s naked body:
‘His bones appeared surprised to be there, jutting out of his skin as though they were trying to find the exit.’
Here’s Karl with his wife as she lay dying:
‘He rested his hands on her arm, just bone really, nothing much more, and he typed, softer than breath, I am here Evie …’
And Millie in the cemetery:
‘Just the leaves on the trees sliding over each other, like the sound of someone wiping their feet on a welcome mat. It is the most perfect sound, a sound that is barely a sound at all, a Just Enough Sound so that she knows she is still here.’
Secondly, I love books that are rebellious and this book is out there. It’s about a topic that’s considered taboo—death—and it confronts its theme head on, on almost every page. Not in a morose or sad way, but in a ‘it’s-a-fact-of-life’ way. We, as a society, fear death, perhaps because it’s the one thing about our lives that we can’t control, nor I suspect, will we ever.
When my sister died at the relatively young age of nineteen, I wanted and needed to talk about her. However, whenever I brought up her name, the people around me froze. If someone accidentally mentioned her name, everyone looked at me, worried I’d be upset. The opposite was true—I wanted to talk about her and her death. I remember thinking how unfair it was that I couldn’t talk about her anymore, that I had to wipe her from my conversations because she was now a ‘Dead Thing’ (as Millie would say). I knew it was because people were finding it hard to cope, too, but I remember it made me feel even more alone.
The other theme of this novel is ageing. We see the sad lives of Karl and Agatha: Karl incarcerated in a nursing home and Agatha in self-imposed imprisonment. It highlighted for me how much loss there is for the elderly—loss of loved ones, loss of health, loss of independence. Just loss. That we as a society don’t often see unless we visit a nursing home.
If you can suspend disbelief a little at some of the antics, and not worry about the authorities lack of action about an abandoned child, you’ll enjoy this book and champion Karl and Agatha as they try to take control of their lives again. It’s an easy read and the ending is fitting and made me smile.
My favourite scene is Karl with his wife as she is dying:
‘He remembers not being able to talk to her as she lay there at the mercy of machinery and starchy sheets. His words in the air, without hers, were horrifying.’
Brooke Davis has taken two important topics, death and ageing, and turned them into a touching read.
This is my eighth Book Review for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2014. For more reviews, click here.