The challenge of being, Tatjana Schaefer

The Falconer’s Daughter
N K Ashworth
RSVP, $25.00
ISBN 9780987658760

Being Magdalene
Fleur Beale
Random House, $20.00
ISBN 9781775537670

It almost goes without saying that novels for the young adult or teen reader are about the quest for personal identity. I challenge anyone to name a book where this could not be argued. The Famous Five, I hear you say? I stand corrected. However, coming of age, blossoming into adulthood, bildungsroman, all of these terms generally come to mind when dealing with novels for this age group, and this is no bad thing. After all, the formation of identity is an essential part of a young person’s growth, and this gives writers ample opportunity to address the matter of personal development and self-identification, sometimes through metaphorical means – such as fantasy quests – and sometimes by tackling the harsh reality of life in the world out there beyond the bedroom window. The two novels dealt with here not only tackle these matters, they take them to the next level.

N K Ashworth’s The Falconer’s Daughter combines the two approaches – fantasy and realism – through a novel-within-the-novel device. Our protagonist, fourteen-year-old Maddie, finds a fantasy trilogy written by her mother before she died some years ago, but the trilogy is unfinished. Maddie attempts to find some connection with her mother, not only by reading the trilogy, but also through the mother’s interest in falconry, and through the principal location of Ashworth’s novel, an abandoned tower previously owned by Maddie’s mother. Maddie herself takes in an injured falcon and rehabilitates it at the tower. Her best friend Jess is often there to provide a sense of normal teen life, but also, for the benefit of the reader, to draw out information from Maddie and force her to clarify some of the confusion that is going on in her head. The importance of the tower as a location, Maddie’s seemingly trivial first memory of having a bowl of cereal at the age of four, her feeling of estrangement from her father, and her sense – and indeed proof – that someone else is secretly frequenting the tower, all combine to make this story intriguing and suggest that there is something else about Maddie that is yet to be discovered, not just by the reader, but by Maddie herself.

Maddie’s story is interspersed with passages from the mother’s Griffin trilogy, in which a present-day English archaeologist briefly travels to the past – the time of Celtic druids – where he fathers a child. This child, a girl named Skyla, later travels forward to the present day to live with her father in Chester, though she has retained some of the ancient Celtic magic. Like Maddie, Skyla takes up falconry and has a best friend for the purpose of discussing and clarifying her thoughts and feelings. The two stories – Maddie’s and Skyla’s – run parallel in many ways, but are stylistically separated through different fonts and, more importantly, through the choice of first person and present tense for Maddie’s story, and third person and past tense for Skyla’s. The similarities between the two narratives are clearly intended to blur the lines between the two protagonists, and this is done successfully, as we recognise through Skyla that there must be more to Maddie’s psyche than we have thus far observed. Skyla’s story suggests in metaphor the answer to Maddie’s struggle to find out who she really is. Only occasionally towards the end does one wish that the two protagonists were more distinct, as it becomes harder to remember which set of characters have had a particular (and possibly crucial) conversation.

The parallels between the stories, as well as Maddie’s obsession with the tower, the falcon and her dead mother, build to an extraordinary denouement that is at once utterly unexpected and yet in every way predestined. It sheds light on all the dark corners of the story and brings Maddie’s journey to an astounding conclusion.

As the title of the novel suggests, Magdalene in Fleur Beale’s Being Magdalene also struggles with her identity and must uncover in the course of her story what it really means to be Magdalene. This is the third instalment by Beale (after I am not Esther and I am Rebecca) that follows the children of the Pilgrim family, members of the strict religious cult Children of the Faith. A list of characters prefaces the novel, reminding us of the older Pilgrim children who have already left the Faith, through either their own volition or banishment for transgressing against the Rule. These siblings are considered “dead” by the members of the Faith. At twelve years of age, Magdalene is now largely in charge of her seven-year-old sister Zillah, youngest child of the family. Two teenage brothers also remain in the household, and it soon becomes clear that Magdalene is the only one among the siblings who is not categorically against the Rule and the Elders. Unlike her rebellious and inquisitive younger sister, Magdalene is by nature obedient and placid, avoiding confrontation wherever possible. As a result, her narrative is punctuated by sudden stomach pains brought on by instances of conflict with the Rule.

The principal antagonist in the story is Elder Stephen, undisputed leader of the Faith and power-crazed tyrant. The events of the previous two books – the rebellions of several Pilgrim children – have resulted in his animosity towards the remaining siblings. Magdalene’s parents are strict adherents of the Faith and, guided by Elder Stephen’s open hostility, the mother has now become distrustful and cold towards her children, merely reciting scripture at them at every opportunity. We learn a little about other families of the Faith, and it seems that the young Pilgrims are not the only ones secretly dissatisfied with the Rule and Elder Stephen’s regime. There is an increasing sense that more and more characters are attempting to loosen the shackles of the Faith and seek a less restrictive kind of life. This leads to perhaps the only real problem with the novel: a rather black-and-white division between good people who secretly doubt the validity of the Rule, and evil or at least mean-spirited people who follow the Rule and Elder Stephen without question. This dichotomy is echoed in Magdalene and her mother: both are having a nervous breakdown brought on by the tense situation in their family; but while her mother retreats further into blind faith, obedience, and scripture quotes, Magdalene begins to look outwards and eventually makes a leap of faith for herself and Zillah.

Beale is a seasoned hand at creating a believably heart-wrenching atmosphere around Magdalene, relieved by moments of simple, quiet joy. We feel Magdalene’s dilemma, which is not about faith but about how to be the sister Zillah needs her to be without destroying her already fragile family. This is the crux suggested in the title of the novel: being Magdalene within the Faith has only ever meant being the protective sister or the obedient daughter; but what does it mean to be Magdalene if she is taken out of this context? Magdalene does have to address this question by the end of the novel, but life within the chilling culture of the Faith is at the centre of the narrative. As in the previous books, births, deaths and marriages form important markers of the story, reminding us that – inside or outside of the sect – some human concerns are the same wherever we are. And since the deaths are only metaphorical, the good feelings are allowed to outweigh the sad in the end.

Tatjana Schaefer teaches in the English programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in Literature, Review, Young adults
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