The story starts when a girl wakes up in the Australian outback with no idea who or where she is, why she’s wearing a shiny black dress and only one shoe, and what it is in the locked case she clutches. After an uncomfortable night, she is startled to hear a girl’s voice shouting ‘Hey! Don’t move!’ and Tarni, a First Country girl of about the same age, frightens a snake away with her slingshot. Tarni is on a journey to find her runaway sister, and the girl joins her, in hopes of finding civilization, but as they talk and share adventures together, it becomes clear that Tarni’s quest is not what it seemed. The girl dreams about aspects of her former life, with memories of the very restricted life she led, and of her selfishness.
A nasty man and his mother recognize her as ‘the girl on the News’, and try to catch her and hold her in hopes of increasing a huge ransom, with Tarni’s help, she manages to get away and they carry on with their journey. Thirteen-year-old Tarni can find water, make hats and a shoe, and her survival skills are excellent, but not infallible: they eat some fruit that makes them both very sick indeed, but they are rescued by a kind lady in a caravan. The girl manages to open the case and finds that she can play amazingly well on the old violin inside. Tarni eventually sells some of her stone art at a garage, and buys a newspaper that reveals that the girl is a concert violinist who was on her way to perform at a concert on her very valuable Stradivarius violin: her teacher and the pilot of the small plane were killed when it crashed. As the truth about Tarni’s sister being a Spirit Walker emerges, and the girl realizes that is just her own spirit which has been accompanying Tarni, she returns alone to the site of the crash and is rescued, but resolves to be a better and kinder person. The book ends with the adult violinist accompanying Tarni’s prestigious art exhibition: they have remained friends.
First Country beliefs are cleverly woven into the story, and Tarni uses some Alyawarre words which are made clear by the context, but a Glossary is available to explain them all. There is a charming sub-plot about Tarni’s relationship with a honey-eater bird with a broken wing, whom she carries around in a home-made cage, and is reluctant to let free when he is well enough- another instance, like the sister, of the need to let go.
Zillah Bethell had great success with her first book The Shark Caller, and this is a cracking adventure story with some great characters, but this reader felt somewhat cheated by the resolution – so many of the people they met on the way didn’t exist, and how could the girls be so ill if one of them wasn’t real? The press release hails this book as set to become a modern-day classic, but your reviewer is not so sure about that.