Friday, 19 June 2015

Carnegie Shortlist Review - The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean


‘The piano arrived too late to stop the sky falling in.’

The intriguing first line of The Middle of Nowhere introduces the reader to a compelling setting and interesting characters. We go on to learn that Comity Pinny’s mother has suddenly died. Comity and her father, Herbert, are numbly absorbing this, and soon they begin reacting to their grief in very different ways. Comity finds some solace in her friendship with an Aboriginal boy, Fred, who was also close to her mother. Unfortunately, even this small measure of comfort is threatened by the station assistant, Quartz Hogg. His cruelty towards Fred opens Comity’s eyes to the racism that Aboriginals face from her own community, and along with her own mistruths, and a sprinkling of dead bodies, the story changes direction, culminating in a thrilling ending.

Comity is a beautifully rounded character who is brave and has an engaging imagination. The way Geraldine McCaughrean reveals different aspects of how she copes with the death of her mother through Comity’s own viewpoint, and later, though another character’s, is truly masterful.

The Middle of Nowhere of the title is the only home Comity has known, in the remote Australian outback, where Herbert mans the wireless station. Geraldine McCaughrean’s vivid yet simple descriptions infuse every line of the story, and it has a stronger a sense of place and time (it is set early in the last century) than I’ve read in any other children’s book this year. This is also enhanced by Fred’s Aboriginial legends and Comity’s Bible stories and hymns, which they teach each other.

This book is recommended by its publisher for children aged 11+. The tricky themes of isolation, grief and racism are handled with sensitivity, and I agree with this recommendation. However, some young readers I’ve discussed this book with have reported putting it down and not coming back to it - the narrative does have a slow start. They have been encouraged to hear that the second half of the book has a lot more action. Other young readers have raved to me about the beauty of this book, appreciating how the quieter beginning helps establish the parallels between the isolated and lonely location and the inner lives of the characters.

Everyone familiar with the prolific Geraldine McCaughrean’s work knows that they have a treat in store when she releases a new book. She has only won the Carnegie Medal once before, in 1989 for A Pack of Lies. The Middle of Nowhere is a beautiful book that thoughtful readers will gain immense pleasure from for many years to come.

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