The Curlew’s Eye by Karen Manton

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

As soon as I began reading this book, I became enchanted by the imagery of the landscape. The author Karen Manton made it come alive and, for me, this became a major focus throughout the book. It did not take away from the main story, but in fact enhanced it, adding drama, fear, mystery. ‘The rocks were wise, ancient souls, weathering the eons. Among them pandanus palms stood guard, with their heads of spiky, double-edged sword fronds and bright orange fruit…She could almost hear them breathing. They knew something’ (16). At night ‘every plant or tree was fixed in a night pose, cast in a paralysis of stiffened arms, spiked fingers, a fountain of hair’ (8).

Added to the atmosphere created by the vision of the landscape were the sounds of the bush, ‘as the sapling leaves rattled’ (62) and the stones sang, or a flame hissed alive. Most noticeable were the sounds of the birds and insects, the cicadas with their rasping chant (75), the magpie geese honking a warning (81), the gecko clicking, cuk, cuk (87), the chirping crickets or the gentle woof, woof of a barking owl and always the curlews wailing their deep lament (87).

The story involves a young family, mother, father and three young boys, as they return to the place where the father, Joel, grew up with five brothers, a sister, his parents and two uncles. There is unfinished business here for him, yet it is his wife Greta who comes under the spell of this harsh landscape so different from the place where she grew up.

She felt connected to the landscape and believed that, in all these years, every highway and meandering track they’d taken together as a family had been heading for this destination. A ‘shack perched halfway up a hill in an other-world of bizarre shadow plants and dark sentinel trees, where the earth rose in sharp-pointed mounds and the rocks could see at night… Every road had been leading here, to this place’ (10).

This place to which they have come has its own story. There is the poisonous lake where ‘the silver arms of a drowned tree begged the sky for mercy’ (22) and where the water ‘was a frightening silence, an absence of the living’ (78). Here the overhead clouds were often ‘in conversation with each other and their reflections below’. The lake was at the heart of this place, ‘beating a secret pulse, drawing lines to the shack, the hut, the homestead’ (170). Many old cars lay scattered across the property – one where the steering column ‘was a headless neck’ (42) and not far from the lake a gutted car had sunk, bonnet scalped to one side, boot lid up like an open mouth…It was a cousin to the wrecks up at the homestead.

And there was the menacing presence of their animal trapper and fossicker neighbour.

When Greta buys an old film camera with developing equipment, she sees the landscape in a more intense way and seeks for answers to many questions that arise. Who is the mystery girl only she seems to see? What really happened to Joel’s sister? It is through her photography and wandering the property that she finds some clarity. When developing her photos, particularly the one of the bush stone-curlew, she suddenly ‘felt a connection with the unkempt feathered messenger who called out its sorrow to her in the night…there was something in that haunting eye that could be a mirror’ (103).

Karen Manton has a beautifully rich writing style and a vivid imagination. The setting and the people were very relatable and the air of mystery about what was real and what was not added an extra layer to a fascinating story. The author obviously has a good understanding of family dynamics and how actions and words from the past have such an impact on an adult life. I loved this story for its simplicity but also for the many layers that hovered above and below it. For a debut novel, this is a fascinating read.

The Curlew’s Eye

(2021)

by Karen Manton

Allen & Unwin

ISBN:978-1-76087-951-8

$32.99;352pp

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