***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: Beautiful prose, setting, and characterization, plus a lovely portrayal of the inner life of children, but I'm not sure the coming-of-age themes are as deep as they hope they're being.
This book is deliberately a bit dream-like, capturing how the mind of a child experiences the adult world, and the inevitable loss of innocence as a result. It also deliberately raises more questions than it answers, with wobbling success for me. I was initially spellbound because of the ambiguity throughout, but I have to say that later, when I had finished, I didn't dwell as much as I thought I would--I was happy to let it rest--which means that something missed the mark, ever so slightly.
The prose is beautiful and lilting. This is genuinely talented storytelling, and it's such a slim novel that it's worth reading for the language alone. The setting is Australia during the Vietnam war. Eleven schoolgirls go on an impromptu outing with their somewhat free-spirited (bordering on hippie) teacher. The impetus is the teacher's dismay at the hanging of Ronald Ryan (who would turn out to be the last man legally executed in Australia). She takes the girls to the park to visit with the gardener there, Morgan, whom she's enamored with. She has groomed the image of Morgan in the girls' mind as a poet and a peaceful draft-resister, and the girls are taken by his beautiful voice and owly eyes. Morgan leads them all to see supposedly aboriginal cave paintings (it's unclear whether the paintings are really there, or the girls imagine them, or they are there but are more modern handprints), stopping to gently carry one of the girls who has scraped her knee in a fall. Once in the cave, the girls are frightened of the dark and head out on their own, leaving Miss Renshaw and Morgan behind. The adults never reappear, even as the tide consumes the beach. The children go back to their classroom, only to learn later that both Miss Renshaw and Morgan are missing, and even later (from the newspaper) that Morgan had committed a violent crime in the past.
Learning about loss. What follows is the girls coming to terms with the fact that their teacher will likely never return. They learn the dark real-world possibilities while fabricating lighter versions of their own, and struggling with the issue of whether and what to tell about her disappearance. She had asked them to keep Morgan as "their little secret," and at first they oblige, until Bethany's fragile sobbing takes her to the school counselor and she spills everything. Miss Renshaw had said the activity at the park would be to "think about death," and in fact that day turns into an eight-year rumination on the concept of death and loss, as the girls come to terms with her permanent disappearance.
At the end we see a core group of four of the girls graduating (including Cubby and Icara, who are unspoken best friends), and on their last day of school they seemingly bump into Miss Renshaw, who feeds them bits and pieces of her personal history since her disappearance that seem to jibe with some of the hopeful guesses the girls had made all those years ago (she ran off with him spontaneously; they left out a back entrance). In keeping with the small instances of magical realism in the novel, Dubosarsky leaves some question as to whether Miss Renshaw is a ghost: she's wearing the same outfit she disappeared in, her hair looks the same, and Cubby sees the necklace that was torn off her neck in the cave. In an absolute coup of writing, the Miss Renshaw who was somewhat magical to the children (with her perfect, loopy handwriting, and literary passions) is now seen through the lens of more jaded teenagers as eccentric, flighty, and irresponsible.
Instances of magical realism: the words growing on the blackboard "Not now. Not ever;" Cubby's sensation of floating through an entire day; the maybe-there cave handprints; the way Miss Summers' hair is the same coppery cap as when she started teaching. In general, many things are wonderfully planted that help the dream-like narrative. For instance, one of the girls suggests on the beach that there may be another exit from the cave, and eight years later Miss Renshaw (or her apparition) confirms that Morgan led her out the back way.
But some things are planted and then abandoned. The very first line of the text is: "The year began with the hanging of one man and the drowning of another." The drowned man (whom I later learned was the Prime Minister, Harold Holt) is never mentioned again. Australian readers may have known instantly that it was him because of the year, but I was confused and had to do research in order to place this piece in the puzzle. I would have liked Dubosarsky to more deliberately bookend the year with Holt, to have shown the girls' reaction. Also, the senior prefect, Amanda-fit-to-be-loved is somehow intimately tied with Icara's family, and it's a source of pain or embarrassment for Icara, but we never learn how, or what it means.
Miss Renshaw the ghost. Your takeaway feeling about this book can't help but hinge on the ending. Her appearance is necessary if Dubosarsky wants to highlight the ambiguity of her story. But was the ambiguity necessary? Wasn't the point that these girls have lost their innocence? Adding Miss Renshaw as a ghost makes the world seem childishly magical again, which I think is at odds with the growth that all the girls have taken toward Icara's (marvelous) cynicism. Is the point perhaps that we grow up, we become more pragmatic, but somewhere inside we retain the fantasy that defined our young minds? Dubosarsky is such a talented writer, I'm inclined to believe that's what she meant, but I would have liked her to have taken her time unfolding that concept for us in that scene.
In sum: this book is definitely worth the time to read it, but mostly for the language and descriptive passages and tone. For some reason it didn't linger or change this reader inside.