The Song Walker by Zillah Bethell

The Blurb On The Back:

Where am I?

What am I doing here?

And … Who am I?

When a young girl wakes up in the middle of the desert, she has no idea who she is.  She’s wearing one show, a plain black dress and she’s carrying a strange, heavy case.  She meets Tarni, who is on a mysterious quest of her own.

Together, the two girls trek across the cast and ever-changing Australian Outback in search of answers.

Except both are hiding secrets …

THE SONG WALKER was released in the United Kingdom on 2nd February 2023.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order THE SONG WALKER by Zillah Bethell from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

A young girl is walking in the Australian desert.  She doesn’t know where she is or how long she’s been walking for or even what her name is.  All she knows is that she’s lost a shoe and her foot hurts, she’s got bad sun burn, she is wearing a black silk dress and is carrying a locked metal case that she cannot open.

It’s only when she’s walked so far that she can’t go on any further that she meets Tarni, a 13-year-old First Country girl carrying a cage with a bellbird called Candelabra. Tarni looks after her, shares food and water and finds bush tucker and water holes for them.  She is looking for her older sister, Brindabel, who has left the home they share with their mother and agrees to get the girl somewhere she can get help.

The further the two walk into the Outback, the more the girl’s memories start to come back and she realises there are things she can’t share with Tarni and equally she realises that there are things that Tarni is not sharing with her …

Zillah Bethell’s novel for readers aged 9+ is an entertaining tale of an unlikely friendship that forms between two girls from different backgrounds that draws on First Country culture and has a magical realist vibe.  Tarni is a more interesting character than the girl (who has a poor little rich girl back story) and has the more moving emotional journey with Bethell being sensitive to First Country culture and I’d definitely read her next book.  

Bethell does a good job of slowly drawing out the girl’s back story and establishing what’s happened to her for her to be in the Outback.  However, the slow reveal of her family background did leave me a bit disappointed because there are distinct poor little rich girl vibes to it, which I thought were difficult to relate to, although saying that I did like the way Bethell makes the girl reflect on how she behaved as a result of it.

Tarni is much more interesting, partly because she’s a sparkier character but she also has a lot of vulnerability, which Bethell draws out through the scenes between her and Candelabra.  Bethell does a good job of portraying and respecting First Country culture and beliefs and I enjoyed the different set of characters who the girls meet on their journey, especially Debonaire, who lives a self-sufficient life with her dog.

The journey element itself is generally well executed with the exception of the mother and son who chase after them.  For me, there wasn’t enough tension or danger in those scenes while the bizarre relationship between the mother and son kept throwing me out – this may be because of links to First Country mythology and the nature of what they represent – but it still didn’t ring true.

I liked the ending, which does have a bit of a rug pull element to it, but was in keeping with the themes and developments in the preceding chapters.  I also very much enjoyed the epilogue, which brought home the very real friendship between both characters, although I would have liked more of a hint of what happened to the girl’s relationship with her parents.

Music and art run through the book and Bethell does well at conveying the abilities of each girl and in particular, how important it is to First Country culture.  There’s also a glossary of terms used in the book, which I found very useful together with some discussion points at the end.

All in all, I did enjoy this book.  It’s got a sensitive feel to it and really gave a sense of the harshness and beauty of the Australian Outback.  I very much look forward to reading what Bethell writes next.   

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