Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fly Away Peter by David Malouf

Originally posted 6/20/2008. Update posted 6/22/09.

This lyrical book has lost none of its charm for its absence of a year to the day. David Malouf is a treasure, and I am so glad I had the good fortune to discover this fine, fine writer. The novel reads so lyrically, I can hear music as I read along. Something haunting with rises and falls, perhaps the soundtrack from “Out of Africa” or “The English Patient.

I found a few interesting facts. The title comes from an English children’s nursery rhyme, “Two Little Dicky Birds.”

“Two little dicky birds sitting on a wall,
One named Peter, one named Paul.
Fly away Peter, fly away Paul,
Come back Peter, come back Paul.”*


As I re-read this novel for my book club, I became curious about all the birds and the title, especially since no character named Peter appears in the book. I also kept track of the birds mentioned, and found photos of all 37 species as a nice visual for my book club.

The birds and the nursery rhyme together fits nicely in with the plot. I can’t say anymore, because it would give away the ending. Still 5 stars.

--Chiron, 6/22/09

Is there anything better on a lazy Sunday afternoon than a newly purchased book of a new author recently recommended by a trusted friend? Yes, if the novel in question is lyrical, poetic, and so wonderful it can scarcely be put aside for dinner.

David Malouf is of Lebanese and English descent. His family moved to Australia in 1884, and he was born there in 1934. Like one of the main characters in Fly Away Peter, he left Australia for 11 years of study in England. He returned and taught at the University of Sydney until 1977. He now writes full-time, dividing his year between Australia and Tuscany. He has won numerous literary awards, including the first International Dublin Literary prize, and he has been short-listed for the Booker Prize.

Malouf is clearly in touch with nature, as this passage illustrates:

"They were so graceful, these creatures, turning their slow heads as the boat glided past and doubled where the water was clear: marsh terns, spotted crake, spur-winged plover, Lewen water rails. And Jim’s voice also held them with its low excitement. He was awkward and rough-looking till they got into the boat. Then he too was light, delicately balanced, and when it was a question of the birds, he could be poetic. They looked at him in a new light and with a respect he wouldn’t otherwise have been able to command" (31).

In stark contrast to the nature scenes in Australia are the graphic and frightening scenes in the trenches of France during World War I. I marvel at Malouf’s ability to describe the dreadful conditions of trench warfare – the rats, the mud, the lice, the stink, the urine, the corpses, the blood, always the blood – and the insanity of war. This passage only hints at the depth of Malouf’s vision when the novel is read as a whole:

"Packed again into a cattletruck, pushed in hard against the wall, in the smell of what he now understood, Jim had a fearful vision. It would go on forever. The war, or something like it with a different name, would go on growing out from here till the whole earth was involved; the immense and murderous machine what was in operation up ahead would require more and more men to work it, more and more blood to keep it running; it was no longer in control. The cattletrucks would keep on right across the century, […] They had fallen, he and his contemporaries, into a dark pocket of time from which there was no escape" (102-3).

Throughout this madness, Jim had the birds to ground him in reality. He kept a notebook of the birds he saw and the songs he heard.

If this is any indication of Malouf’s talents and power as a writer, I can’t wait to get into the rest of his novels, short stories, and poetry. Now I can eat dinner!

--Chiron, 6/22/08

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