Review: The Raven’s Song by Zana Fraillon and Bren MacDibble

Cover image by Joanna Hunt, published by Old Barn Books,
October 2022

A tale of survival, discovery and hope in a vividly imagined near-future where the population makes reparation for the climate crimes of the past, this new novel jointly written by an Australian and a New Zealand author is thought-provokingly brilliant. I think that the cover image by Joanna Hunt does full justice to the narrative’s imagery of two world’s colliding in a mystical space.

Shelby Jones, known as Shel by those closest to her, helps her dad manage a chicken farm. Her neighbour and best friend Davy helps his family run a sheep farm. Their world comprises exactly seven hundred hectares enclosed within an impenetrable fence and populated by precisely three hundred and fifty kind, ethical people. They know that another closed township exists a distance away, but travel outside their compound is out of the question and one of their main priorities is the daily check of their sections of the fence for any breeches in its security. As Shel’s first person narrative states in the first chapter:

If anything from the honoured and natural world gets in, that’s on us.

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This strictly controlled world order is based on scientific analysis of the ability of the land to support human life following the climate-based disasters caused by earlier generations with their greed and disregard for the environmental damage they were causing. Now Shel and Davy’s generation must pay the cost; living low-tech, sustainable lives while the planet recovers. School history lessons repeatedly remind the children that they must endure a simplified, hardworking lifestyle in stark contrast to the technological advances that were enjoyed by their forebears but which caused existential chaos across the earth. The reverence in which the natural world is held is highlighted by the language, the title “honoured” bestowed on every reference to a part of nature from critter to mountain!

When a sheep goes missing from Davy’s farm the children find an unnatural cut in the fence and spy an unusual reflective disc tied to a distant tree in the jungle beyond the boundary of their world. This leads Shel to begin questioning what might have been on their land and the jungle that surrounds it, before the township was created and sets the tale of discovery in motion.

In a dual narrative we are introduced to the aptly-named Phoenix, who sees strange visions featuring a raven during the night, and his long dead mother at the window during the day. Combined with his sleepwalking, his Gran declares he has a sixth sense, a gift passed down from previous generations. Phoenix’s younger brother Walter seems to have linked visions and his sister Ida declares that ravens are birds of prophecy and that the visions are meaningful messages from the spirit realm. After a sleepwalk in the bog results in a bagful of objects linked to their dead mother, Phoenix and his four siblings decide that it is time to visit their mother’s memorial tree, planted in a small forest in the middle of their city. The mystical connection to a far distant past which occurs at this point left me intrigued and mesmerised and from this point I could not stop reading until the end of the story.

The connections across time between the narratives emerge in a plot which combines ecological science with poetic mythology. The duality of a fully preserved human child emerging from the liquid depths of a bog, and child victims of an incurable virus being suspended in time awaiting a scientific breakthrough is perfectly rendered in a complex and intriguing mystery. The themes of children teetering on the brink of adulthood and having their futures sacrificed by adult carelessness is as heart-breaking as it is beautifully and metaphorically written.

This is such a timely tale as the world emerges from the onslaught of COVID-19 and following a summer in which extreme climate events have been reported from all around the world. It is a story which certainly makes you think about they way we are treating the planet, the lessons we should be learning from the past and is ultimately a salute to human resilience and the value of taking responsibility to make a difference. When Shel and Phoenix’s existences finally collide, she says with the straightforward truth of youthful thinking:

You was just a kid. There’s not much you can do ’bout the world you’s born into, I guess, ‘cept try to walk real gentle where you can and give voice to the critters that’s too quiet to be heard and be a different kind of adult when you grow up.

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I highly recommend this book to mature readers of 11+ and would encourage all secondary school librarians to place a copy in their collections where I am certain it will appeal to teenagers who are environmentally aware. Pre-order your copy today!

I am most grateful to Ruth at Old Barn Books and Liz Scott for providing me with access to an e-book version of The Raven’s Song ahead of publication on 6th October 2022.

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4 thoughts on “Review: The Raven’s Song by Zana Fraillon and Bren MacDibble

    1. I think it would be ok for emotionally mature Year 6 pupils – I would have let my daughter read it for example. The two things I’d consider are: children kept for 100 years in suspended animation and most don’t survive might be upsetting for some children and some passages are written in very figurative language which might not be comprehensible at primary age and would be better appreciated a few years later.

      Liked by 1 person

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