The Lorikeet Tree by Paul Jennings

Reviewed by Gerard Healy

This is a Young Adult novel with dollops of darkness mixed in with some light. The story centres on fifteen-year-old Emily and her twin brother Alex, who live with their ailing father on a rural property outside Warrnambool, Victoria.

Now the author of this fine little book is Paul Jennings and it just so happens that he also lives on a property outside Warrnambool. Whether he has teenaged children or a medical condition I don’t know, but The Lorikeet Tree is a departure from his more well-known tales of quirky deeds and humorous situations.

Dad’s property is part of a Reforestation project, with the sole giant manna gum home to a flock of lorikeets. It is in this tree that Alex builds his own tree house and when he started adding extra layers I thought Jennings might have been paying a subtle tribute to his fellow writers Andy Griffiths and Terry Dalton for their tree-house series for kids.

The first appearance of darkness comes with the news that the twins’ father is dying of a brain cancer. To further darken the mood, we understand that the siblings don’t get along that well, and to round out the gloom, we learn that the twins’ mother has died in a car accident years earlier. So things are looking grim from Emily’s point of view and it is Emily who is ostensibly telling the tale here.

Alex doesn’t cope well with his dad’s grim news. In the past, he has had an unusual way of coping with scary thoughts by building small models of houses and putting figurines in them. If the unwanted event doesn’t happen (bushfire, flood, accident), Alex thinks that he’s averted it. Emily, more of a rationalist, thinks this is just “magical thinking” and disapproves of the practice. She thinks her brother is “emotionally vulnerable”.

To counterbalance all that doom and gloom, we have some rays of light, such as the fine example of the father. He seems a sensible voice of reason who has come to grips with his terrible diagnosis. He tries his best, under failing health, to give his children all the support he can under the circumstances.

He is aided by several other adult characters, firstly by Jack, his friend and doctor, who offers to help whenever he can. Then there’s a local forest and wildlife officer named Matthew, who is 18, good with animals and handsome to boot. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Emily has a crush on him.

With his own background as a teacher, it’s no surprise that Jennings has portrayed Emily’s teachers in a sympathetic light. The Head of Literature Studies, Mrs Henderson , the Humanities teacher Mr Wheeler and a relief teacher Ms Gabrielle offer support and encouragement to Emily and her brother. In a neat twist, it’s the relief teacher who turns up later in the story. Jennings has these teachers marking Emily’s writing as the “memoir” proceeds. In the end they even give her an A plus!

The tension between Emily and Alex ramps up over a kitten. A feral cat has had five kittens and Alex really wants “one to love” as he puts it. Emily, being a naturalist, loathes feral cats for their killing ways, especially with birds. She is adamant that they all be removed to a shelter and asks Matthew to do it. However, Dad can see that Alex really needs the kitten, so asks Emily to agree with him and let him have one. This puts her in a tricky conundrum.

The mental health of teenagers is an important element in the story. Since Emily spends most of her free time on their isolated property, she doesn’t seem to have regular contact with her school friends. Perhaps surprisingly, she doesn’t seem to have a mobile phone or internet either. Maybe  being one of the very few 15 year-old girls in Australia without a phone is not all bad news. Perhaps she’s avoiding some of the trolling and abuse that are unfortunate additions to these devices.

Importantly, there’s a hopeful glimpse of a better future for the twins via the  symbolism of the baby bird nursed back to health and finally released among the flock of lorikeets. So too we hope that Emily and Alex get the chance to find their own “flocks” and move on.

I would recommend this engaging story to High School students and adults for its thoughtful treatment of some sensitive subjects.

Paul Jennings AM has sold more than 10 million copies of his books, which include Unreal! (1985). His Around the Twist was turned into a successful TV series and he has won numerous prizes including the Dromkeen Medal in 2001 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Children’s Book Council of Australia in 2019. He was born in England in 1943 and moved to Melbourne with his family in 1949. His wife is comedian Mary-Anne Fahey.

The Lorikeet Tree


by Paul Jennings

Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978 176118 009 5

$19.99; 192pp

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