Skylarking, the debut historical fiction novel by Kate Mildenhall, opens with the main character, Kate, reconstructing her memories of a particular moment in her past, up to a point she wants to forget. What happened?? What could possibly be so traumatic?
This novel is based on historical fact, so the climactic event can be looked up in the records. But it is so much more pleasurable to become immersed in Mildenhall’s reconstruction of what Kate’s memories might have been. Kate’s memories of her childhood and adolescence are fragmented, pieced together to form a portrait of the love and loss of friendship.
“I hold it, that memory, in a deep recess in my mind. I take it out and examine it, again and again and again. The light in it has grown old and worn; the features of her face, the colour of her hair are blurred now; but each time, it is like the first crack of a newly laid fire, the moment the flames begin to lick. The second that is not before and is not after but is only now and now and now.”
Early in the novel, Kate is asked, “Do you ever wonder where all your memories go when you die?” If it wasn’t for Mildenhall discovering a memorial during a camping trip near Jervis Bay, the story of Kate’s friendship with Harriet might have been buried with them. At the time of the events in this story (I can’t remember seeing a date but it must be in the early 1900s), Kate’s and Harriet’s families lived and worked at the Cape St George Lighthouse. Their fathers operated the light, while their mothers ran their households, helping each other give birth and bury their children, and tended their gardens and livestock. This would have been Kate’s future. The year she turned fifteen, she was no longer eligible for school: her days “were now filled up with fetching and mending and washing and baking and hanging out the laundry.”
Being a woman at the time was a highly prescribed existence, and precarious too with the spectre of dying in childbirth. But Kate yearns for something more than marriage and returning to the cape to make babies and Christmas puddings year after year. Her best friend, Harriet, is two years older, and a beauty: advantages that provide the possibility of leaving behind the smallness of existence at the lighthouse station.
However, this dynamic between the two girls is fictionalised, based only on the handful of facts gleaned from newspaper reports and inquests following the traumatic event. From this, Mildenhall has unwound the threads of what could have happened.
Kate as narrator (as opposed to Kate as author) says, “as with any good story, there are elements of truth and the rest has been made up to suit the storyteller.”
There are other markers of meta-storytelling throughout. Just as Mildenhall intended to fill in the gaps or silences in the girls’ historical record, she also fills in the gaps or silences in the wider historical context. She acknowledges that the documented events make no mention of the Indigenous inhabitants of the area, expunged from the records, just as insidiously as they were expunged from country, “rounded up…and sent down to Lake Myner”. But in Mildenhall’s novel, Kate encounters several Indigenous people, living in the area, most notably a ‘black girl’ with whom she tries to speak. These characters are not instrumental to the plot, but fill in the spaces in the social landscape—who would have been there, who should have been there, if we need to start telling more accurate stories about our history.
At the Byron Writers Festival I heard an author refer to AB Facey’s A Fortunate Life, and the missing parts of that social landscape: the local Indigenous inhabitants. Historical fiction can both teach us about the past, and rectify it.
The theme of story-making is, at times, quite explicit: “I was rigid now with nerves. It was as though I were approaching the climactic scene in a book, and I wanted to read on and also I didn’t, for once I went on, I would know what happened and all the possibilities and imaginings would be reduced to one ending.”
I sometimes struggled to believe in the closeness of the friendship between Kate and Harriet, despite the continual affirmation that Kate ‘loved’ her like a sister, and the quasi-romantic overtones of their relationship. There is actually more description of the distance between them, which expands as they grow through adolescence: “Was Harriet so far apart from me now? Why was she making the distance so plain?” Indeed, their friendship, from Kate’s perspective, seems to be almost hostile in its competitiveness. “I saw him first, Harriet, I saw him first.”
In one of the book’s meta-moments, Kate recollects that “[w]hat I lost – what was elusive – in all those years of trying not to remember, was the truth: about her, about us. She made me, is always part of me.” I found it is the closeness of this friendship that is lost in the reconstruction of memory and history. But this silence between the two girls, the broken communication between Kate and the Indigenous girl, indicate spaces that the reader can still fill with meaning, with other possibilities, so that the story can be made and remade. We cannot change the past, but we can imagine alternative endings, better ways of being part of our social landscape.