Skylarking By Kate Mildenhall

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Set in a tiny lighthouse community in the Jervis Bay area towards the end of the 19th century, this is the story of best friends, Kate and Harriet. Kate is the younger by a couple of years; smart, bookish, quite wilful, and supremely confident in the physical environment where her father is the head lighthouse keeper. In many ways Harriet - the blond, beautiful, only child - seems less mature. But this probably helps to make their relationship more equal. The story is told from Kate's point of view, and Mildenhall has managed to provide her with a really strong, consistent voice over the 6-7 years in which the story unfolds.

As the girls begin to blossom into young women, the arrival a handsome fisherman in the settlement causes strain between the friends. He only has eyes for one, but it is the other who has disquieting dreams about kissing him. The tension builds steadily until the situation is resolved in the most dreaded way.

I enjoyed every page of this debut novel by Kate Mildenhall. After hearing her speak at MWF 2016, I thought I had a pretty good idea of how this story, inspired by a true historical incident, was going to play out, but I had it all wrong and that made the tragic climax all the more quietly devastating for me.

An excellent example of historical speculative fiction, set in Australia. Skylarking 3.5★
Skylarking is a work of fiction, based on the true story of Harriet Parker . . . her best friend, Kate Gibson, . . . the hut of Donald McPhail at Cape St George in 1887. I came upon this story while camping with dear friends . . . at Greenpatch camping ground in Jervis Bay, New South Wales.”

This is an edited version of the Author’s Note at the end of the book, and it does show the bare bones of the story she had to work with. For her debut, she has created a believable story that I think would suit young people as well as an adult audience.

Kate and Harriet. I always think of them in that order because the story is told from Kate’s point of view. Kate is the instigator of all the adventure, the fun, the picnics, the big-picture thinking. She’s the one who reads all the books Harriet receives as gifts. Harriet can’t be bothered.

They live with their families and a handful of others at Cape St George where Kate’s father is the head lighthouse keeper. There are other children and there have been more. The various families have been touched by tragedy, but it’s their parents who suffer most, not the girls. And we don’t really share that suffering, because we are in Kate's head.

Most of their time is spent romping around the island, playing on the beach, collecting mussels in rock pools and generally dividing their time between household chores and skylarking. As they hit their mid-teens, Harriet matures more quickly, and finally, Kate begins to catch up.

“I knew it was a line I was crossing, from childhood to adulthood, and I wanted to stay and I wanted to go, and I wanted to be able to be in both places forever more.”

That one sentence pretty much sums up Kate’s attitude to life. She wants to live on the cape forever but she wants to see Melbourne and travel the world. She doesn't really want to be her mother.

And she feels very much second to Harriet in looks. The girls are being fitted for new dresses, and I imagine many women have felt this way about themselves.

“Hers was a smooth silhouette, tucked in at the waist and curving into the proper shape at the chest, whereas Mother always told me that I looked as if I’d been wrestled into each dress she made me.”

But she knows that, best friends or not, they are different creatures.

“I wanted to dive deep down, skimming the sandy bottom of the ocean with my bare skin. I wanted to glide through fingers of pink weed and velvety fronds of green and come face to face with a mullet, or a gummy shark, slide up to the rubbery flank of a great whale and feel her song vibrate through my cheek to the very centre of my brain and understand what she told me. These were the peculiar thoughts I never shared with Harriet, or anyone else.”
. . .
Sometimes I felt as if there were something amiss in my make-up. That all the pieces had not been put together right. You couldn’t see it from the outside – no, it was my inside that was awry. It made me recoil at the thought of marriage, made me dream of sailing away, of living beneath the ocean. Sometimes on the rocks you could get within a foot of a dead seal, if the wind was blowing away from you. The rocks would obscure it, and you could be right over it, about to step into the putrefying flesh, before you inhaled the unholy whiff of it and realised you’d been breathing it in all along. That’s all that was needed for me to be found out; a wind change, and someone would sense what was rotten inside of me.”

The girls are fascinated by a handsome, mysterious fisherman (McPhail), and like to wander around near his cottage, kind of tempting fate. They have no idea what they might be tempting, but they love the thrill. Kate is jealous that McPhail and Harriet seem to be a bit attracted to each other, and when Harriet returns from a long visit to Melbourne (sent away to avoid McPhail!), they can’t help going back there.

The event at the end is the real one on which the book is based, and it is a shocker!

There are many homespun scenes of baking ginger cakes and puddings and bread and heating up the washing water and minding little children, but the main story belongs to the girls.

I expect to see more from Kate Mildenhall. Skylarking *

Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall. (2016).

As daughters of lighthouse keepers, Kate and Harriet are best friends growing up together on as isolated Australian cape in the 1880s. Everything changes with the arrival of the fisherman McPhail and Kate sees the attraction between Harriet and McPhail. One moment in his hut will change the girls' lives forever.

*For those that don't know, skylarking basically refers to silly/frivolous behaviour or playing around.

This intriguing novel is a fictional retelling of a real event. It is written very well and really immerses you into the story so you could easily imagine that this is really what happened. There isn't a lot of action per se until the end but that doesn't stop the book being quite riveting. Kate and Harriet's friendship from small children to adolescence living in such a small community is very absorbing.
Overall, a great fiction book about a fascinating true story involving friendship, love and loss that made me want to look further into the real events. Skylarking This first novel is inspired by the true story of two friends, Kate Gibson and Harriet Parker. They were the daughters of lighthouse keepers, who grew up together, in a small, isolated community on the coast of Australia's Jervis Bay Territory, late in the 19th century.

Certain facts are public record; the story that underpins those facts is imagined.

I love that this is a story of female friendship, very firmly rooted in a particular time and a place that the author had taken time and trouble to understand. And that it was told in one voice, a voice that always rang true, and that told the story from start to finish, with no shifts in time and no digressions.

The younger of the two girls, Kate, tells her story.

Her world is a small one, and she only really knows the families of the other men who work at the lighthouse with her father. There are a few fishermen who have settled nearby and just about make a living, and there are native people who live a little further away; but there is nobody else. That makes the friendship between the two girls particularly precious.

Kate is bright, bookish, brave, and loves to explore the world around her while she waits to grow up and have the kind of adventures, and see the kind of places, that she has only read about in books. She is eager to explore every bit of the world open to her - cliffs, beaches, grasslands - but her friend lacks her natural agility and confidence, and so she struggles to keep up and occasionally get into difficulties. Harriet is calm, quiet and much more cautious; and she dreams not of adventure but of a husband, a home and a family of her own.

'Even though the peppery scent of the scrub on that headland ran through my blood, I knew that there must be other places that would thrill me. And while I hoped that Harriet would be by my side as I ventured off into the great unknown, I knew this was unlikely, Where I had dreams of boats and pirates and coral island adventures, Harriet saw a future of home and hearth ...'

The details of their world and their lives are quite beautifully drawn; it is clear that that the author has researched and that she has understood, and she has woven what she learned into the story she in a way that feels completely natural and right. I had a lovely time watching the way the small community worked and all of the domestic details, but, for me, it was when Kate was exploring her world that the story really sang.

I could pick up the sea saltiness in the air, I could feel the breeze; I could see grass and flowers give way to cliffs, and the beach below ; I knew exactly how it felt to move through the world that Kate knew so well.

Although I am on a different coast on the other side of the world it felt so like home, and it brought this painting to mind:

(Amanda Hoskin - View of St Michael's Mount from the Fields)

A newcomer would unsettle the friendship between the two girls. He was a young fisherman who came closer to the community around the lighthouse then others did. Each girls is drawn to him, but he responds to them and treats them quite differently. Kate is jealous, and Harriet is reluctant to talk.

Then her family sends Harriet to visit relations in Melbourne, because they want her to meet more people and see other possibilities before she makes any decisions about her future. Kate is thrown into the company of the local boys and younger children, and she misjudges situations and makes mistakes.

Her behaviour is far from laudable, but I recognised her emotions and I understood her actions.

Tension grew, and my head was full of questions about what was happening, what would happen.

There were maybe too many questions, but that was, at least in part, because the facts that this story is spun around are difficult to explain.

I have to say that is a weakness; but I also have to say that all the things she did well in the book - the way she drew me into a world, a community and a story- tell me that Kate Mildenhall will write something quite wonderful when she finds the right story to tell.

I was captivated by this book; and so I'm hoping that one isn't too far away ... Skylarking In this debut novel, Kate Mildenhall re-imagines what could have happened to cause a tragic event that occurred in a small coastal community in the 1880s. As the only girls in their mid teens, Kate and Harriet are close friends in the isolated community around the lighthouse where Kate's father is the keeper. However, as they grow older and a handsome fisherman arrives in the community, they compete for his attention and jealousy starts to creep into their relationship. The tension builds slowly up to the tragic incident that tore apart their lives and their families.

This is a gently told story. It focused mostly on the details of daily life in a small community and the freedom the girls enjoyed as they were growing up but also the need for them to leave one day if they wanted to marry and have families. It was easy to relate to Kate, who as the narrator told us of her feelings and her yearnings to experience the wider world. Harriet felt more distant and a little spoiled, especially after visiting Melbourne to look for a suitor. Skylarking


What a joy and relief these days to read a novel that is simply told. There is no jumping around in time and no changing points of view but just a novel of two girls growing up and their friendship. It also accurately portrays the jealousy and feelings that raise their heads when one starts to grow up and have different experiences before the other. This starts mostly when the fisherman McPhail arrives in the small community.
The novel is a fictionalised account of what could have happened on an isolated cape on the south coast of NSW in the 1880s. As one who lives in the area and has been to the ruins of the lighthouse and read the story of the tragedies that occurred there, this book had special significance. When I visited those lighthouse ruins I believed there was a story waiting to be told. Kate Mildenhall has told it, giving the reader her view of what may have happened. I was right there with Kate and Harriet and their parents and others associated with the lighthouse. The setting is beautifully portrayed and the characters Kate and Harriet come across well. There is a sense if tension as you wait for the tragedy to happen.
This is a gentle novel that does not race along but still has the reader turning the pages because it is beautifully and sensitively written. Even though I am not one not overly enamoured of coming of age novels and those which feature young characters, I enjoyed this novel. What a beautiful cover too! It is a gentle haunting book about friendship, love and loss. Recommended reading and I’ll be very interested to see what Kate Mildenhall writes next.
Skylarking *
Skylarking is a book that takes an atmospheric and introspective look at the powerful friendship that forms between two young girls while they come of age on an isolated lighthouse community in the 1880’s. This powerful Australian literary fiction tale is informed significantly on historical fact.

At the centre of this debut historical fiction novel is Kate, the daughter of a lighthouse keeper. Kate shares her life with Harriet, the daughter of the other lighthouse keeper. Together, the best friends endure the loneliness of life near the cape. Everything changes for the two young girls when a fisherman named McPhail arrives in their small seaside community. When a sense of desire and longing begins to flare for Harriet and McPhail, Kate feels left behind. This follows a tragic event in the small hut belonging to McPhail. The event changes the lives of Kate, Harriet and McPhail forever. Skylarking is a devastating novel that captures the feelings of love, friendship and loss of a young girl in her prime.

I recently read Salt Creek, another moving Australian historical fiction novel written by Lucy Treloar. The front cover quote that adorns Skylarking states: “A brave, beautiful and richly textured book that delicately explores the fault lines in love and friendship”. This quote from acclaimed author Lucy Treloar is completely substantiated. Skylarking is an exquisite debut novel that offers one the most powerful examinations into love and friendship I have read for some time.

Often the best historical fiction novels are those that are drawn from figures that existed in our past, or based events that occurred in times gone by. Skylarking is a novel that was inspired by the author’s trip to a camping ground, where by chance she came across an old grave belonging to Harriet Parker. Harriet lived near the lighthouse in the late 1800’s. Kate Mildenhall, a first time novelist, takes this real life figure, time period and location and presents the reader with a reconstruction of the events she believes played out between Kate and Harriet. The result is an exceptional novel that resonated with me.

Readers should be impressed by the skill of the prose presented in this novel. For a first time author Mildenhall displays great poise. Mildenhall’s prose is assured and graceful. I relished the reading experience I was offered through Skylarking. The passages that struck a chord the most for me were the passionately expressed descriptions of the natural surrounding landscape of the isolated cape region in which Kate and Harriet live. Equally colourful are the descriptions that give us a glimpse into the way of life on an isolated cape location. These include treacherous weather conditions, frequent shipwrecks and a lack of opportunity, especially for women residing at the cape.

Skylarking is narrated by Kate Gilbert, one of the main protagonists of the novel. Kate is an expertly drawn character. Mildenhall captures Kate’s wide eyed innocence, her awakening as a burgeoning young woman, her passion and her aspirations to have a life away from the lighthouse. Harriet is presented in equal measure character wise by Mildenhall. Harriet is a less headstrong than Kate but when the mysterious McPhail enters the girl’s lives, Harriet’s heart is opened to love hard and fast. The intensity of these adolescent emotions eventually wreck havoc between the two girls and McPhail, the fallout resulting in a tragic love triangle. McPhail is a significant character in Skylarking and is rendered with a deft hand. Mildenhall builds a strong picture of this stranger and fisherman, who unwittingly becomes embroiled in the lives of the two young girls from the cape.

Mildenhall handles the fateful event that occurs with a thoughtful and reflective tone. I didn’t see the catastrophic event on the horizon at all and the sense of shock it brought to me was unexpected. It took some time for me to get my head around what just occurred, the finality and the sadness of it all. But at the same time, the misunderstandings that arose could have prevented this tragic turn of events. Skylarking is a book that I needed to take a pensive look at once I brought myself to finish the novel. This is an indication of the strength of this novel.

Skylarking is a refined novel and an outstanding addition to the crop of Australian historical fiction novels that have been released in recent times. Mildenhall’s approach to conceptualising what happened to a real life figure Harriet Parker in the 1800’s at the lighthouse community is to be applauded. Skylarking is a stirring title that deserves high acclaim. Skylarking Kate and Harriet had been best friends all their lives – Kate’s father was the head lighthouse keeper and Harriet’s father was his assistant. Together their families had lived through heat, cold; summers and winters on the isolated cape on the edge of the Australian coastline. It was the 1880s and Kate and Harriet grew up knowing fun and laughter, adventures and love.

Harriet was two years older than Kate and suddenly Kate could see her friend was turning into a young woman. She was at times jealous of Harriet’s gentle curves until her own body began to change. But it was when a new man arrived and took over the abandoned fishing cottage that tensions simmered. Kate could see the looks shared between Harriet and McPhail and even though he was a good bit older than the girls, he was a rugged, attractive man.

When Harriet was seventeen, she went to Melbourne to spend three months with an aunt. Kate was so happy to see Harriet return – she had missed her dreadfully and their adventurous spirits immediately took over once again. But the course of events over one day was to change lives irrevocably…

Skylarking is the debut novel by Kate Mildenhall and wow! what an exceptional journey she has taken the reader on! Based on a true story, it is set in Jervis Bay, New South Wales in 1887 and takes place at Cape St George where there was a small community devoted to the upkeep and care of the lighthouse. The Author’s Note at the end of the book is very interesting and tells how the author came upon the story – but don’t read the Author’s Note until the end, as there are spoilers involved. Highly recommended. Skylarking This was a beautiful book to read, the story of two young girls growing up in a very small community in Australia, their lives, their friendships and their loves.

The story is based on a true event, a tragedy which occurred in 1887 at Cape St George. The author has used many of the real names of the characters who were actually involved and then has spun a web of her own design to imagine how and why the event occurred. She does it well. I could feel for those poor girls and their families.

The book is beautifully written, hard to put down and full of fully fledged characters who make you keep reading to see what happens next. I recommend it. Skylarking 3.5. Absolutely beautiful setting, described wonderfully. An isolated Cape in Australia, a lighthouse keeper, his family and a few others that live on the Cape, and two girls with a friendship they hope will last forever. Days filled with fun, adventure, secrets, chores too of course, but we all grow up. A new young man arrives on the Cape, and this and he will change things between the girls, create a fissure in their friendship.

It is rare these days to find a story told in a straightforward manner, loved that this is one told in such a way. The tone is melancholy, reminds me a bit of Picnic at Hanging Rock, another fictionalized account of an actual happening. To see how these early families lived, how they handled the mostly solitary nature of their lives, their daily habits, was fascinating. The different ways grief was handled, and the forgiving nature of some, poignant. All in all a good imagining of a true tragedy.

ARC from Netgalley. Skylarking

Longlisted for the Voss Literary Prize 2017

'Skylarking is a beautifully-written love letter to female friendship, full of the passion, envy and confusion of growing up and growing apart' -- Kate Riordan

Kate and Harriet are best friends growing up together on an isolated Australian cape. As the daughters of the lighthouse keepers, the two girls share everything, until a fisherman, McPhail, arrives in their small community.

When Kate witnesses the desire that flares between him and Harriet, she is torn by her feelings of envy and longing. An innocent moment in McPhail's hut then occurs that threatens to tear their peaceful community apart.

Inspired by a true story, Skylarking is a spellbinding tale of friendship and desire, memory and truth, which questions what it is to remember and how tempting it can be to forget.

What Reviewers and Readers Say:

'It's testament to Kate Mildenhall's skill that you become so immersed in the lives of best friends Kate and Harriet you feel the dread, but hope it will not be so ... fans of Emily Bitto's The Strays and Favel Parrett's Past the Shallows will find much to admire here.' Herald Sun
'[Mildenhall's] research of life on a remote cape in a young colony manifests in lovingly drawn descriptions of the natural landscape... the novel's strength lies with following Kate's and Harriet's stumbles and skylarking from childhood to womanhood; and their close, sometimes stifling, friendship.' Thuy On, Sydney Morning Herald

'It is hard to believe that Skylarking is Kate Mildenhall's debut novel, as her ability to create both character and atmosphere is impressive.'Annie Condon, Readings Monthly

'It's no surprise to learn that debut author Kate Mildenhall counts Geraldine Brooks and Hannah Kent among her favourite writers. Inspired by a true story, Skylarking recreates a particular time and place as evocatively as they do...this is a beautifully written book, with lyrical descriptions of the desolate yet beautiful landscape.' AFR Magazine

'Mildenhall is at her best when she is exploring the complex relationship between these two young women as their burgeoning sexuality begins to cause problems within their tiny community.' Books + Publishing

'Kate Mildenhall's impressive debut novel is filled with the light and air of its rugged coastal setting ... the perfect backdrop for Mildenhall's powerful evocation of a passionate, intense relationship between two young women ... Mildenhall takes this historical case and re-imagines it with such sensitivity and insight that we feel this must be how it truly happened.' Emily Bitto, author of The Strays
'The storm-lashed coastline of the Great Southern Land is the setting for this poetic, slow-moving tale of the friendship ... an evocative yarn.' Australian Women's Weekly

'Skylarking is a strikingly real and deeply moving meditation on adolescent friendship in all its complexities, faithfully rendering both teenage envy and the depths of love between two girls. The bush comes alive; one can almost hear the sound of the crickets on a hot evening. But above all, it is a heart-wrenching work.' Olga Lorenzo, author of Salt Creek

'Author Kate Mildenhall evocatively brings to the mind's eye the lives of two young girls in Victorian-era Australia.' Better Reading
'Skylarking is a brave, beautiful and richly textured book which delicately explores the fault lines in love and friendship, revealing their thrill and loveliness as well as their darker sides: jealousy and heartbreaking regret' Lucy Treloar, author of The Light on the Water Skylarking