Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 14, 2016

Wildlight, by Robyn Mundy

Wildlight Just recently I read an indignant opinion piece by a young person who was sick of being told to put down her phone and engage in real life.  I scanned the usual predictable commentary, pro and con. None of it was very illuminating.

Robyn Mundy, author of this engaging novel Wildlight has tackled the issue with more insight.  She has placed her sixteen-year-old protagonist on a remote island off the southern coast of Tasmania, with parents who failed to be upfront with her about the lack of coverage there.  But there’s more to it than that: the mother has returned to this island for a four-month stint as a volunteer, hoping that nostalgic memories of her childhood there can bring her some peace and also help her husband to resolve his crippling neurasthenic inability to speak properly.  More than a year after Stephanie’s twin died, all three of them are struggling to deal with the loss, and their face-to-face communication difficulties are mirrored by the way Stephanie feels marooned, cut off from her Sydney life.

The arrival of Tom, a 19-year-old crayfisherman similarly captive to the wishes of others, doesn’t just signal a tentative love story.  It’s also a reminder that these remote islands off the southern coast of Tasmania are not quite as isolated as they might seem.  Stephanie’s family is in phone contact with Tasmania, and arrangements have been put in place for her to board in Hobart for the study vac before her final exams.  The reason that Steph can’t enjoy the long and frequent phone calls that she’s used to, is because she can’t monopolise the landline that is reserved for business and emergencies.  Steph understands that this phone could be a lifesaver, but understanding her mother’s betrayal doesn’t come easily.  The process of readjusting her ideas about what’s important begins with an almighty row with her mother, her impotent father on the sidelines trying to keep peace.

She checked her mobile for a signal.  She was on her own, cut off from the world.  She turned to her mother, ‘I’ve given up my life for you.  Everything.’

Her mother sighed.

‘My friends, my social life, Lydia’s eighteenth, the most important term of school.’ Steph couldn’t stop.  ‘And why? To support my mother on an island no one’s ever heard of, where there’s no one but my parents to talk to, no email, no TV, no internet. NO MOBILE COVERAGE.’ She glowered long and hard. […] ‘You never once asked if I wanted to come.  What I thought.  Did you ask Dad before you signed our lives away?’ Her mother turned her back.  She stared out through the window.  ‘This is all about you, Mum.  Pretending you’re still a girl living at a lighthouse, everything sparkly, as if nothing’s changed, as if Callum were right here, squeaky clean and perfect.’ (p19)

The novel treads a fine line between YA preoccupations (first love, parents who don’t understand, confusion about study and career options) and a more satisfying story that explores the impact of tragedy on the adults we become.  Steph’s parents have an expectation that she will have the resilience to deal with grief and loss on her own.  Not only do they remove her from Sydney and whatever emotional supports she had there to deal with the loss of her twin brother, they subsequently abandon her for James to take up a new career on the other side of the country – even though they know about her attachment to Tom who has been lost at sea.  Gretchen grew up on Maatsuyker Island not needing the consolations of human company.   These are parents who are determined that Steph will learn to be independent.

But the price of that independence is an unwillingness to risk real relationships in adulthood.  And for Tom, seeking his independence results in a burden of guilt and a perilous desire for expiation.

The novel avoids a clichéd happy ending by signalling Tom’s survival right at the beginning of the book.  A series of misadventures and betrayals keeps the news of Tom’s survival from Stephanie, and when she finds out many years later, she knows that any reunion is much more complex than in a three-hankie movie.

Mundy writes with an intimate knowledge of her remote location, and the scenes at sea are compelling.   The weather is omnipresent in a way that rarely impacts on city dwellers.  The wind whips away clothes pegs along with the clothes, the screen door must be tied in position, hail on the roof silences any attempt at conversation.  There are places so dangerous in the rain that even a rebellious teenager heeds the warning.

Rain.  Relentless days of it.  It came in waves like movements of a symphony, slowly, gently building to crescendos that pummelled the cement, burbled through downpipes, choked drains, spilled as waterfalls through every rusted gutter. Steph watched the sky empty, watched until it ebbed and eased into a steady drizzle.  (p.127)

Wildlight is an insight into lives in remote locations and how wild places shape the people who live there.  These days Australian lighthouses are all automated, but scientists of one sort of another still spend months alone on location while they study endangered species, climate change and weather patterns.  Fisherfolk endure the harsh conditions so powerfully conjured by the author so that we can enjoy delicacies from the sea without needing to brave anything more arduous than a shopping mall car park.  I don’t know how they do it…

Author: Robyn Mundy
Title: Wildlight
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2016
ISBN: 9781743537909
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $32.99

Available from Fishpond:Wildlight


Responses

  1. Thanks for this review. Being Tasmanian and in love with its ruggedness, and also knowing Robyn’s work, I bought this book a few months’ ago. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but I it’s now next on the list. (I’m currently reading, and enjoying, Anna Spargo-Ryan’s, ‘The Paper House’, having just finished Magda Szubanski’s wonderful book, ‘Reckoning’.)

    • I’ve heard a bit about The Paper House and hope to get to it one day, but I have such a backlog of books I committed to reviewing, I must tackle it and bring it down to size.

  2. I read and enjoyed this book a couple of months ago. I have to say it has also grown with “age”. I still think about it, especially the sense of place snd the descriptions of the environment and it comes to mind when I need to recommend a book to someone.

    • It reminded me a bit of Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath in the way that you could almost feel the peril of the weather on the page.

  3. Hi Lisa, I read this a few weeks back now and enjoyed it too. I thought Mundy’s descriptions of Maatsuyker Island and the coastline fabulous, and the boating scenes reminiscent of Parrett’s ‘Past the Shallows’. I liked the ending too.

    • I was also impressed by the #NoSpoilers survival walk along the coastline. Parrett has written the blurb for this book BTW.

  4. Ok, you’ve convinced me to read this one too. Mainly so I can decide for myself whether or not months of living at an isolated lighthouse would be as wonderful as I imagine it might be.

    • LOL it seems to be too late to change your mind once you get there!

  5. I have to confess that moving on Tasmanian island doesn’t immediately bring pictures to my mind. (Tasmanian Devil is the first word that comes to my mind when I hear about Tasmania)
    I’m not sure I imagine properly how remote it is.

    What I perfectly imagine is cutting a teenager from her phone and her online life. Phew. How Steph’s parents even had the guts to do it is beyond me.

    It sounds a bit too romance-novel for me but I enjoyed your review.

    • *chuckle* I must find some Tasmanian novels to recommend to you! Tasmania is too interesting a place to be just symbolised by a Tassie Tiger!
      But no, this is not a romance. At first, I thought it might be because young love seemed on the horizon. And at the end, with the possibility of a reunion, I thought so again. But no, Mundy is too sophisticated a writer for that.
      And what I haven’t talked about in the review is the lovely passages about Steph’s passion for making art with glass…

      • Send the recommendations my way. But I’ll have to find them in translation if the books are full of descriptions of nature or of specific customs. Otherwise, I’ll get lost like with Kim Scott.

  6. The descriptive part of the novel sounds good. But the idea of dragging a child in senior high school to a remote island brings up ‘issues’ for me. I went to schools all round Victoria, changing towns every 2 or 3 years which caused problems friend-wise and education-wise. I suspect from your review that the author is on the mother’s side rather than the daughter’s, would you agree?

  7. Torn, I would say. I agree, it seems like an odd, possibly cruel thing to do, especially in the context of a very clever child’s final year at school, and I think Mundy has captured the feelings of the girl very well. It’s her perspective that we get, not the mother’s. But we also see that the mother is ‘right’ in the sense that the girl comes to reject some of the shallow values that go with teenage territory.
    I had an education that horrifies some people: 14 different schools on three continents before I was12, There were times when we just didn’t go to school at all. I think it made me independent, flexible, resilient and adaptable. It might not sound like something a teacher would say, but my own education taught me that education is not what you get at school.
    (Of course, I was lucky to live in a bookish, music-loving family where a lot of what I might have learned at school, I learned more happily at home.)

  8. Hi Lisa
    Thank you for reviewing Wildlight and engaging with it so closely. I am sitting here reading your post on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, grumbling to myself about the spotty mobile reception. I guess there is some of Steph left in me!
    😊

    • LOL Robyn your book made me realise that I am exactly like young Steph in my reliance on being connected. At times I felt that you were channelling me when I was stuck up on the Gold Coast in a black spot at my parents’ house!

  9. […] Wildlight by Robyn Mundy. I just loved the way she captured the teenage girl’s horror about being out of mobile phone and internet range when her family set off to spend months on one of Tasmania’s remote southern islands.  There’s more to this novel than just teenage angst, so why it didn’t capture more attention, I do not know. […]


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