Vivienne Kelly’s second novel, The Starlings, revolves around Australian Rules football, following the season of 1985. I am not much of a football fan, but neither is the protagonist, eight-year-old Nicky, so I found his perspective on it amusing, and the family drama around it was fascinating.
The prologue had me hooked where Nicky says ‘for more than thirty years I’ve done my best to forget 1985. I crushed it into a matchbox, and I pushed the matchbox to the far corner of a dark drawer in the distant reaches of my brain, and I slammed the drawer shut’.
On his eighth birthday his grandmother, Didie, died. He was not that close to her but her death brings about changes in the family that have lifelong ramifications for them all.
Didie’s passing allowed for interesting observations of religion and the rituals around death from the perspectives of Nicky, Pippa, and their parents. At the wake the ‘women were talking about Didie and the men were talking about football’.
Nicky describes himself as ‘an odd child. I loved books; I couldn’t play sport; I didn’t have friends’. His father is obsessed with football, particularly the Hawthorn team and is disappointed that ‘Nicky’s not much interested in footy … More of a Starling than a Hawk.’ He felt his father saw him as a ‘non-footy-playing sissy who suffered from dizzy spells [and] played with dolls’. Because of his father’s interest, and despite Nicky’s lack of it, ‘there was never a child who cared less about football, never a child who knew more. Sponge-like, I absorbed the facts and figures fed to me by my father’. It made me wonder if the author had had a similar experience growing up, or the details of AFL and the Hawks came from lots of research.
The continual dissecting of football games, the discussions that never needed to end, were recognisable. Nicky on the other hand had to ‘pretend to care’.
Nicky’s anxiety was so real, with his cast of ghosts in his bedroom, where he ‘drifted to a precarious sleep around the edges of which both named and nameless terrors smirked and sighed’. As he realises that ‘the safe terrain of my childhood had become slippery’ he becomes more insecure and doesn’t know who to turn to.
This novel beautifully depicts a child having to deal with many things beyond his years. Kelly has produced the voice of a young boy so authentically, with both his dialogue, and particularly his inner thoughts. The ‘unpredictability of adults’ is portrayed, as Nicky begins to understand ‘that few characters in stories deserved their fate’. This is not a book for football lovers, rather for those who, like Nicky, love Shakespearean drama, book and words.