How often I find myself saying I likely would not have read, or even have come across, a book had it not been for another reader. It's thanks to Stefanie that I read David Malouf's Fly Away Peter. Malouf is an Australian author who has won a number of awards and been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and after this introduction to his work I can see why. Fly Away Peter is a slim understated novel (really just a novella) about WWI that manages to convey much in few pages, and it's the first novel I can recall reading about the war from an Australian perspective. It was so beautifully written that I wanted to read it twice, but it had to be returned to the library before I had the chance to flip back again to the beginning of the book.
Fly Away Peter is an interesting and excellent addition to my WWI reading list, one with hidden depths that could easily be mined for deeper meaning. Superficially it is similar to many of the other stories I've read--two friends heading off to war, the inclusion of class consciousness into the story (though only in a peripheral sort of way), battlefield scenes and the horrors and senselessness of war on both mankind and nature, yet there is still something about the book that felt different as well. There is a beauty and simplicity to the story, too, which might at first seem at odds in a war story, but it really works here.
You'll have to forgive me if I get a few of the details wrong as I didn't make very good notes and I no longer have the book on hand in order to refer back--I'm working from memory unfortunately. The story is split into two parts. It opens in Australia with a young man, Jim Saddler, watching birds in a field. Jim is an observer and knows just about everything there is to know about the birds that migrate to Queensland where he lives. He knows what they look like and sound like and when they arrive each year. He can name them all and is in awe of the beauty of the natural world of which he is part. For him, this small corner of Australia is his entire world.
Ashley Crowther, having been away in England to be educated, has just arrived back home where he has inherited the plantation that Jim knows so much about. The two become friends, yet each is still in his own sphere of being. Ashley decides to turn the land into a wildlife reserve and hires Jim to manage it. Their small circle is widened by elderly Imogen Harcourt, herself a migrant of sorts. Originally from England she has made Queensland her home. She is slightly eccentric, though not of the sort that causes talk among the town's residents. Imogen is a nature photographer who Jim meets when they both happen to be watching the same sandpiper, a bird not native to Australia though well known to Imogen from being a common sight back home in England.
This small world that the three inhabit is a complete and happy one until the war comes. Yet even then the war seems far away and remote. At first Jim doesn't even realize what's happening or what might be expected of him and is perhaps a little confused by the speed with which so many other young men are enlisting in the war to fight. It's only with resignation that he joins up as well.
"The world Jim found himself in was unlike anything he had ever known or imagined. It was as if he had taken a wrong turning in his sleep, arrived at the dark side of his head, and got stuck there."
Eventually Ashley follows, though the two cross paths only once or twice in France. I read somewhere that this compact world of theirs was a sort of Eden or paradise and with the war it came to an abrupt end.
This is a story of loss (and what war story isn't), not only the literal loss of lives but also of innocence. Maybe not just the innocence of youthful ideas but also of a nation. So many young men went off to war with happy expectations and never returned. Like Stefanie I was perplexed by the title of the book, but it makes sense since Jim studies the migratory patterns of the birds, which are so prominent in the story. It's not just the birds who leave and then come back again or who may find themselves off course and in a strange world. Tied into this is the perceptions of the two men as well as Imogen in terms of the sense of purpose for everything that is happening to them.
This is a story I'd like to revisit again someday. I liked it so much that I had to find another book by him to read and settled on his first book, Johnno. It is another story of friendship between two young men set in Brisbane, Australia.