Jenny Blackford, The Girl in the Mirror (illustrated by Fiona McDonald, Eagle Books 2019)
In what seems another lifetime, I was professionally immersed for something like 15 years in literature for children of primary school age – the brilliant range of writing arrayed between little children’s picture books and beginners’ chapter books at one end and YA fiction at the other. I haven’t read a lot of it since. The Girl in the Mirror reminds me of what I’m missing.
It’s a time-slip/ghost story: Maddy moves to a new home with her family. As a new girl she has to deal with school-yard politics, and find a way of making herself at home in the new house with its unruly back yard. Her parents, like so many parents in books for this age group – perhaps like so many parents in real life – are oblivious to her struggles, they can’t hear the clattering footsteps of the little-boy ghost on the stairs, and she knows it would be pointless to tell them about Charlotte, the girl from a century earlier, whom she sees in the old-fashioned mirror in her bedroom.
It turns out that Charlotte has problems with a nasty aunt, and that nastiness somehow spills over into the present, threatening the very survival of Maddy’s baby brother. The two girls help each other with their problems, and the ghost of Charlotte’s little brother, already a ghost in her time having died of whooping cough, intervenes cheerfully in Maddy’s life.
With a wonderful lightness of touch, Maddy and Charlotte show each other things about their respective ages: whalebone corsets and skits that end above the knee; the symptoms of whooping cough and the wonders of the Internet.
All that, plus a garden full of poisonous plants, and ominous redback spiders. Which leads me to Fiona McDonald’s illustrations: apart from two full-page ink drawings, most pages have a single tiny redback spider next to the page number. Then at two points in the narrative the illustrations mirror the action, and those spiders multiply and spread up the margins in a delightfully creepy way..
The Girl in the Mirror is the 18th book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy of the book is a gift from the author, Full disclosure, in 2009, soon after my tenure as editor came to an end, The School Magazine published a short story, ‘Bertie’, which Jenny Blackford has expanded to become this novel.
I’m in Jervis Bay – staying Huskisson/Vincentia but visiting all points around this beautiful white sand beach strewn harbour. Samual ELYARD – a member of the Conrad MARTENS circle – visited here in the 1870s and pieces of his art-work are found on many historical notice boards – including of the St George’s Lighthouse on the outer coast side put up in the wrong spot (there were public enquiries to track the blame – reminding us of current Federal finger-pointing and States in rebuttal and narrow frames of reference) already a time-shift story – the inappropriate positioning of which (and painted by Elyard) led to a score of ship-wrecks – hence Wreck Bay… Excellent review Jonathan – I recall in my primary school days several time-shift novels which totally drew me in – Rosemary Sutcliff one of the writers – until finally in 1986 I read Playing Beatie Bow with a brilliant Year 8 class – bringing them down to The Rocks from Nelson Bay HS to explore it themselves – some initial lie-of-the-land-instruction from me – then off they went to find what they could find. Be back here in an hour! What fun! Those years before “tourists” clogging the area – not unlike Covid-now I presume.
Oh…Samuel ELYARD? I noted the name and immediately thought my old 1975/1976 Macintyre High Inverell student Kerrie – surely a relative – indeed so – great x several times Uncle Samuel. Kerrie now Keri McInerney – a noted singer song-writer up in Qld – and researcher of her family. More time-shifting!
It’s good to hear from you, Jim – on the move as ever! There’s probably a book to be written about that lighthouse. I only met Rosemary Sutcliff’s stories as an adult, but I share your love for her. And to my shame I haven’t read Playing Beatie Bow, though I’m a Ruth Park fan from childhood and I enjoyed the film.
No need to feel shame at all J. Tom’s Midnight Garden was another favourite time-shift tale but met only when I was a younger teacher – thank goodness someone had ordered the books – and earlier still someone more in your vein had recognised its appropriateness as a junior high novel. Promoted it. The person who wrote it – the editor who tidied it – if indeed that was required – the illustrator for the cover… I am now nearly finished Pip Williams’ quite marvellous The Dictionary of Lost Words – recommended by a friend – then two days ago at the Cape St George Lighthouse ruins chatting with a retired librarian herself waxing lyrical about it – sent me to dig it from my TBR pile. Stunning – in a word!
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That’s yet another book that’s sitting about our flat wanting some love!
It’s a tale very much parallel with a branch of my family which adds a further degree of interest and reads very much to the family stories I have known for some decades – the family of Dr James Murray and the OED Dictionary work – and his Suffragist wife Ada – and daughters…
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