Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 142 pages; 1999.
David Malouf is a critically acclaimed and prize-winning novelist and poet from Australia. Fly Away Peter, his third novel, netted him The Age Book of the Year in 1982 and the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 1983.
A Great War novel
It is a truly beautiful and devastating story set before and during the Great War. I read it in two sittings and felt stunned by the sheer power and emotion that Malouf wrings from just 144 pages of eloquently written prose.
When Fly Away Peter opens it is 1914. Jim Saddler, a 20-year-old man from southern Queensland, devotes his time to watching birds in the estuary and swampland near the home he shares with the father he does not like very much.
One day he meets the owner of the land, Ashley Crowther, a rich farmer not much older than himself, who employees Jim to record the coming and going of the birds — both native and migratory species — as part of his plan to create a sanctuary.
A little later Jim befriends an older English woman called Imogen Harcourt, whom he sees in the “sanctuary” taking bird photographs which she sends to a London magazine. These photographs also accompany the long list of birds that Jim transcribes into a special book using his “best copybook hand, including all the swirls and hooks and tails on the capital letters that you left off when you were simply jotting things down”.
Trio of characters
This trio of characters come from vastly different backgrounds — Miss Harcourt is an English immigrant who lives alone, Australian-born Ashley was educated in England’s finest schools, Jim has never left Queensland — and yet they are united by their mutual love of birds and the natural world.
When he talked to Miss Harcourt, as when he talked to Ashley Crowther, they spoke only of ‘the birds’.
But their idyllic existence comes to an end when war erupts in Europe and both men decide to sign up — Jim goes to Salisbury, England, to be trained; Ashley is an officer in a different division. It is here, on the battlefields of the Western Front, that Malouf’s extraordinary novel really comes into its own.
The mud and the trenches
His gut-wrenching descriptions of the mud and the trenches and the fear of going over the top are eloquent and moving, as is his depiction of the friendships, and occasional personal hostilities, formed on the front line.
There is one particularly god-awful scene in which Jim loses his best friend in the platoon, a larrikin called Clancy, that is more horrifying and bone-chilling than anything I’ve ever read about the Great War.
But the great strength of Fly Away Peter is the way in which Malouf not only describes how war is a machine, spitting out more and more young men who will die horrible deaths far from home, but also the way in which he contrasts the fighting in the trenches while the residents of Armentières are getting on with their day-to-day lives:
Often, as Jim later discovered, you entered the war through an ordinary gap in a hedge. One minute you were in a ploughed field, with snowy troughs between ridges that marked old furrows and peasants off at the edge of it digging turnips or winter greens, and the next you were through the hedge and on duckboards, and although you could look back and still see farmers at work, or sullenly watching as the soldiers passed over their land went slowly below ground, there was all the difference in the world between your state and theirs. They were in a field and very nearly at home. You were in the trench system that lead to the war.
Explores Australian myths
It’s easy to see why the novel is a set text in many Australian schools. It explores the myth of the Australian soldier and the ANZAC spirit, and contrasts the horror of war with the beauty — and peace — of the natural world. It shows how an appreciation and respect for nature is a great leveller, crossing the boundaries of race, class and experience. And the text is rich with symbols, not least the migratory birds which represent Jim’s “flight” to the other side of the world.
But it is the poignancy of the ending, in which Miss Harcourt stands on the beach and reflects that life continues to move on — “Everything changed. The past would not hold and could not be held” — that elevates this novel from excellent to exceptional.
I haven’t felt so devastated by a First World War novel since I read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. And going by how much I loved and adored those novels, I don’t make this statement lightly…