Book Review: Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller
Today I’ll be reviewing the 2019 book Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller.
DISCLAIMER: In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this book and I are both part of the same writer’s guild, although I’ve only ‘met’ her once in a Zoom session last year which is where I first learned about her book and decided to read it.
The author, Lisa Fuller, is an Aboriginal Australian woman. More specifically, she’s a Wuilli Wuilli woman and is also descended from the Gooreng Gooreng and Wakka Wakka peoples. She’s won a whole heap of awards, too. If you’d like to know more, her website is www.lisafuller.com.au .
Ghost Bird is the debut novel of Lisa Fuller. The book is a young adult horror/mystery novel set in a small Australian town that backs onto bushland during the 1990s. It deals with the realities of being an Aboriginal person in the modern era in a land that has been colonised. It also explores themes of racism and sexism, and how a scientifically minded person navigates their traditional culture’s mythologies and beliefs in a modern-day environment.
The protagonist is Stacey Thompson, a young Aboriginal woman commencing her final year of high school. She lives with her twin sister Laney and their mother. Stacey is the responsible, studious daughter while Laney is the wild, rebellious one. On the first day of her final year of high school, Stacey covers for her irascible sister who sneaks out up to no good with her boyfriend while their mother is working a night shift.
Stacey has a bad feeling about it but puts it out of her mind. She has a bad dream about her sister being captured by someone or something. The next morning it’s revealed Laney never returned from her evening adventure. Was Stacey’s dream something more? While the extended family mobilises to try to find her missing sister, Stacey has to go through the motions at school while worrying about her sister’s welfare, navigating family obligations and expectations, and the local community politics of a small town.
Overall, I thought the whole book worked well. I found myself dreading the school scenes, not because they were bad or poorly written, but because they hit a bit too close to home for me. Not that I have experience going to school as an Aboriginal person, or as a girl, or in a small town, but I found the routine bullying, politics and lack of even-handed punishments and treatments by the teachers and staff rang a little too true to me. So, job well done by the author! Also, the lack of air conditioning in stinking hot classrooms (the only exception being the computer room) brings back memories, too.
This book is listed as a horror, but I wouldn’t say it’s horrific in the gory sense of a slasher movie, but it has the most effectively creepy atmosphere. Seriously, I dare you to read this and not feel creeped out. The mystery is well done because I didn’t know exactly what was happening until it was all revealed. And the ending was well earned but kept me guessing right up until the very final chapter. Was her sister being held by people? By something else? Was she ever going to see her again? Would she survive her captivity?
I thought Fuller’s exploration of the extended Aboriginal family unit, and the obligations and responsibilities each person within feels, was very well expressed. The frustrations of knowing what the cultural expectations are and being torn between following them and doing what you personally think is the right thing. That tension was well explored. Also, the inter-family politics and inherent conflict between the descendants of the colonisers and those whose ancestors have been here for tens of thousands of years.
And, while I don’t have a personal or spiritual connection to Country (I’m not Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander), there are moments in this book where Fuller has written so effectively what such a connection feels like that it’s the first time I’ve really had the sense of what it might feel like.
I also think Stacey is a better person than I am because there’s a harsh decision she makes in the book that haunts her but which I feel is completely justified and mightn’t personally feel guilt over. You’ll know when you get to it.
My favourite character, though, was Rhiannon, Stacey’s older and wilder cousin who I feel steals the show anytime she’s on-page. She’s just so fun and carefree and reckless and hilarious. She’s great.
As an example of how effective the atmosphere is, the opening chapter begins with the two young girls learning knowledge of their people from their grandmother. Here is an excerpt from the end of the opening night-time scene at a campfire that really helps set the tone:
Turning to ask Laney, I have a second to register the glint of gold and a strange pendant around her neck before clawed, furred hands wrap around her throat.
We both gasp at it pulls her backwards out of the firelight.
I spin to Nan, expecting her to move, but she’s still looking into the flames.
She finally turns to look at me with shining red pupils. Stumbling, I feel hands grab hold of my shoulders.
‘Be ready, granddaughter,’ she whispers as I’m ripped back, screaming into the dark.
Would I recommend this book? Ab-so-lutely. In fact, on Reddit alone I’ve recommended the book at least 38 times. Well, once I’ve posted this review everywhere, it’ll be closer to 50 times.
I recommend this book to anyone looking for any combination of the following elements:
- A horror book
- A creepy book
- A mystery book
- A standalone book (not part of a series)
- Books involving indigenous mythological/religious elements
- Book by an indigenous/first nations/black/Aboriginal author (I realise these aren’t always synonymous, but they are in this case)
- Book written by a woman
- Book written by an Australian
- Book set in Australia
- Book set in a small town location
- Book set in the 1990s
- Book for a YA audience
- Book that would be appropriate for an English / literature class
Also, the book has a custom dinkus! It’s a feather of the titular bird. What’s not to love about that? (Big fan of customised dinkuses) If you don’t know what a dinkus is, it’s a symbol marking a scene break within a chapter, often indicating by * or ***.
In summary, this book was an effective mystery and a creepy horror. It felt very genuine, and I strongly recommend it.
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