The Song Walker by Zillah Bethell

Illustrated by Saara Katariina Söderlund.

Published by Usborne, 2023.

The Song Walker is an extraordinary book. I devoured it. It’s a breathtaking read: the descriptions of the Australian outback are breathtaking, I held my breath during the incredibly tense action scenes, and I actually almost forgot to breathe as the story drew to a close and Zillah Bethell delivered the most unexpected of twists. Truly remarkable storytelling.

When a young girl wakes up in the middle of the desert, she has no idea who she is. She’s wearing one shoe, a silky black dress, and she’s carrying a strange, heavy case. She meets Tarni, who is on a mysterious quest of her own. Together, the two girls trek across the vast and ever-changing Australian Outback in search of answers. Except both are also hiding secrets…

I absolutely loved the mystery aspect of the story: the piecing together of clues and the satisfaction when I’d figured something out (although I didn’t see any of the big twists coming!)

The exploration of memory was fascinating. One of the two central characters has lost her memory and remembers absolutely nothing about her life. Fragments of her past come back to her in her dreams and she struggles to discover the truth of her identity. Alongside this, there is the importance of remembering our ancestors and honouring our heritage. This is primarily explored through the character of Tarni, a First Country Australian.

I learnt so much about Australia by reading this book – in particular, the history and traditions of First Country people. Tarni knows her land and the techniques for survival; she honours her cultural heritage and respects the country of her birth.

Another hugely important theme is music. The characters are bound by it. For the girls, music is their connection to past lives, to self, to their ancestors and to each other. It’s a powerful and life-giving force. Quite literally in terms of the dreaming tracks or song lines which Tarni sings and follows: maps in song form which safely guide the girls across the harsh desert landscape, leading them to waterholes and landmarks on the way to their destinations. It’s also the hook around which the book is structured: each part of the story reflects a different musical term.

Watching the girls’ friendship develop was an absolute joy. It’s a beautiful, honest friendship and felt really authentic. I enjoyed watching the power balance switch; they both rely on each other but at different points in the story. There’s humour, love, jealousy, anger, secrecy, forgiveness, loyalty and wisdom. Their conversations actually moved me to tears at times.

Throughout the story, both girls consider their identities. What kind of person are they? Is this who they want to be?There are questions around living an authentic life; conforming to family pressure and expectations; and having the courage to follow your own path. I loved this introspection and contemplation.

The Song Walker is a beautiful, life-affirming story which reminded me of all that is important in life.

If you wanna know what happiness is, climb to the top of the biggest gumtree around. If you wanna know what greatness is, just lie on your back and stare at the stars. […] And if you wanna know what love is, get yourself a best friend.

The Song Walker, page 280

Rating: 💙💙💙💙💙

Suitable for children aged 8+

Thank you to Usborne for sending me this book to review.

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