I’m am absolutely honoured to host Zillah Bethell on her blog tour for the publication of The Shark Caller – an incredibly powerful story of friendship, forgiveness and bravery.
Zillah writes exclusively for Scope for Imagination about the ‘deprivations’ of her childhood in Papua New Guinea.
I grew up on a remote island a long, long way from the UK. There were no buses, no shops, no sweets, no clocks, no computers, no cinemas, no TV screens… I am conscious, as I write these words, that I am telling you everything there wasn’t – describing some kind of negative space, which couldn’t be further from the truth so now I shall tell you everything there was…
Orange paw-paws and mangoes, green coconuts, bananas and white-hot sand. Iridescent beetles that looked like the boiled sweets in the jars of the little old sweet shops I found in the UK – pineapple chunks, cola cubes, jellybeans and humbugs. Birds that flew like fireworks across the sky, shrieking bursts of flame. Butterflies and silvery moths as big as the painted fairy wings you can strap to your shoulders. Everlasting stars so bright that if you stepped into the best jewellery shop on Bond Street, London, the diamonds wouldn’t glitter like the stars in the Papuan skies.
And then there was the sea. The sea was our highway, the waves our traffic lights. A canoe can go very fast and we zoomed along, catching fish, taking trips, moving house, carrying cargo. You learn to swim very quick and hold your breath for a very long taim. Gliding with the guppy fish, past delicate fronds of tickling seaweed. Your eyes get used to the salt and you can see very clearly in that silent world. And the reef… It is an underwater city complete with windows and doorways, entrances and exits, dramatic little happenings! The coral like bouquet upon bouquet of flowers. Imagine you’re looking up at the Murano ceiling in the foyer of the Bellagio, Las Vegas! There it is, under the surface of the Papuan seas.
When I came to the UK, I lived with my grandmother who owned a thrift store – a junk shop, I suppose, although she gave it the ambitious name of Aggie’s Antiques. She’d been through the war and hoarded everything for a rainy day. By the look of that shop she was expecting a lot of rainy days. It was stuffed full of knick-knacks, Toby jugs, gimcracks and objets d’art. She was very knowledgeable. She’d say things like, “That’s Delft, that is.” Or, “That’s a Davenport desk.” In the corner sat an old grandfather clock. I thought it was monstrous, ticking our lives away and in the middle of the night, when it struck the hour, I held my hands to my ears in horror. There must have been something wrong with the mechanism because the chimes seemed to get faster and more frantic by the day. That clock made its way into the Hamelin’s hut in The Shark Caller. In a book about time and memory, how could it not? It was a bridge from one land to another, one life to another. I don’t think it ever sold, just sat in the corner growing old. There was also a pink gumball machine which I loved for its gaudy and utter irrelevance and I think that transmuted into Bigman’s juke box. Bridging the disconnects of culture.
I managed to scrounge a bicycle somehow and zoomed down the new highways, no hands, in my jeans, crashing into cars and walls and luminous green lawns in the gentle English sun. Jumping off garden sheds like a mangy kitten with no understanding of private property. Drinking from rivers and streams when I was thirsty till in the end I was hospitalised, close to death – the rivers being less pure than the ones in Papua New Guinea!
Another faux pas (if you can call it that) was when I walked out of a sweet shop with a Milky Way, perhaps assuming the UK was a country of trade and the shopkeeper would be more than happy with the interesting pebble I’d left on his counter in exchange! I was rapidly disabused of this idealistic notion when a police officer knocked at our door. My father stormed and raged but my grandmother said nothing. She was very kind. She rubbed and blew on my hands to warm them (they were always cold), her own hands raw and calloused from gluing, sanding, nailing. I think it was from her I learned not to judge, that you can never assume a person is privileged, lucky, to blame… that you can never assume anything about a person’s life. After this, she gave me 50 pence for polishing a copper kettle with Brasso or dusting a Toby jug so I could pay for my chocolate bars.
Occasionally she would go out with a friend for a tea and scone and she would drench herself (perhaps to disguise the reassuring smell of biscuits and dog that clung to her) in a perfume called Blue Grass. It had been donated half empty to Aggie’s Antiques and I think she liked the horse on the bottle. Perhaps she imagined she was riding in the mountains of Kentucky!
The perfume now stands on my own dressing table. It is empty and has barely any scent at all. I realise I am describing nothingness, yet that nothingness is the most evocative thing I have ever owned; and the ‘deprivations’ of Papua New Guinea are the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given.
My review of The Shark Caller:
The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell is a living, breathing story of colourful imagery and magnificent language set on the beautiful island of Papua New Guinea. It is a story of respect and responsibility, the conflict of traditions versus what is perceived to be progress, and a personal search for truth, forgiveness and finding oneself.
More than anything else, Blue Wing wants to be a Shark Caller – to sing to the great monsters of the sea and lure them into her kasaman. No matter how many times she asks her guardian, Siringen, to teach her the ways of the water, his answer is always, “No”. Is it because she is desperate to kill the rogue shark, Xok, who savagely attacked her parents; is it because she is not yet ready for the responsibility of looking after these mighty animals or is it simply because she is a girl? Blue Wing will not give up her quest to avenge the death of her parents and soften the pain she feels inside.
Siringen, the local Shark Caller, is the protector of the traditions of their village. Despite the village chief seeking change and progress, Siringen holds onto the power of the past and fights to save what is special about their island home. Without his protection, the traditions are at risk of dying out. What is seen as impractical or no longer needed in today’s world will be thrown away and forgotten. This story is a lesson in respecting and valuing the ways of the past before they are gone forever.
One day, newcomers arrive on the island. Maple Hamelin and her father, Atlas, have come to study the sea and recover from a loss of their own. At first, the two girls clash and struggle to find some common ground, but eventually, they realise they are more alike than they first thought and join together in a common battle to find out who they truly are. In their search for treasure and truth, they discover a one-of-a-kind friendship and a magic all their own.
I was absolutely shocked when I got to the end of The Shark Caller. The power and meaning of the final chapters stopped me in my tracks. Now, I need to go back to the beginning and read it all again to piece together each aspect of this stunning plot!
“Time is like a piece of string that goes all the way back in one direction and all the way forward in the other. You can’t just cut it to fit your own view of things. You can’t just take a section and say that’s how it was. You have to think of how it all slots together.”
Caution for adults:
This story contains a number of very intense themes: life, death, loss, guilt and forgiveness. Children who have already experienced the loss of a loved one first-hand may find this book difficult to take in. It could be incredibly helpful for a child who is dealing with some of these issues but they may require guidance and an understanding adult who is ready to listen and reiterate the messages shared by Blue Wing and Maple.
Thank you to Zillah Bethell & Usborne Publishing for this wonderful book!
Click on the Usborne page for lots of fantastic resources to accompany this book including a scrapbook of growing up in Papua New Guinea.
Click on the cover below to find out more or purchase on-line from Amazon.
Click on the cover below to find out more or purchase on-line from Waterstones.