Fly Away Peter
by David Malouf (Australia)
1982 / 134 pages
rating: 8.5 / historical fiction
This stayed on my tbr shelf for so long because for some reason I thought it was by O.E. Rolvaag and the third of his trilogy which started with Giants in the Earth. Wrong. That was Peter Victorious, the second in the trilogy, and I’ve read it – the third is Their Father’s God. Nevertheless, I had Fly Away, Peter next to Their Father’s God on the shelf. Going through the shelf these last couple days I figured it out.
I very much appreciate the novels of David Malouf and have read An Imaginary Life, Remembering Babylon, Ransom and now Fly Away, Peter. I’m not so fond of war books though and both Ransom and Fly Away Peter have some heavy battle scenes in them.
The title refers to the children’s rhyme: –
Two little dicky birds sitting on a wall,
One named Peter, one named Paul.
Fly away Peter, fly away Paul,
Come back Peter, come back Paul!
Jim Sadler is a young man on the northeast coast of Australia who watches and tracks the birds in the estuary near his home. He’s hired by the land owner, Ashley Crowther, to keep track of the birds, and to create a kind of sanctuary for them. Jim also meets Imogen, a strange woman who photographs the birds, and the three become friends. Those are the three in the poem – the two friends who fly off to war and the one friend, the narrator, who stays wanting them to return.
When WWI breaks out in Europe Jim is not moved to sign up but after some thinking and the war goes on he reconsiders but still holds back. It’s after Gallipoli in 1916 that he signs up and goes as an enlisted man. After a short time Ashley also goes but he becomes an officer. In the way Jim continues to track the birds but the trenches catch up with him and he sees several friends die. It’s quite graphic. The “blood and guts” stuff is why the rating is low. But Jim’s father is an interesting character and their relationship is complex. All of the relationships have a texture and a depth worth considering.
The themes seem to revolve around freedom and death and friendship – this is as usual with Malouf.