The Shark Caller – Zillah Bethell

Stars: ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Everywhere I looked, I could see positive praise for this book. People were singing it’s praises…and rightly so.

The Shark Caller tells the story of Blue Wing who lives with her waspapi Siringen, who is a Shark Caller. She loves going to see and learning more about the majestic, old magic which is used by him to catch sharks. Once, this was a way to feed the island, but now it is a way of keeping tradition alive as other parts of the island become modernised. Blue Wing hides a secret though. She wants to be a Shark Caller for vengeance, to kill a shark who took everything from her.

When Maple and her father arrive on the island, Blue Wing is not impressed. Not only does she have to give up her hut, she is expected to befriend this rude new girl too, who has no interest in learning about the ‘weird, stupid’ village and its inhabitants. It’s clear that neither girl wants to be friends and they argue and disagree over almost everything.

When they both realise there is guilt they need to overcome, as well as secrets to hide and uncover, they forge an unlikely – and to start with, reluctant – friendship.

Shark Caller is a beautifully written book which not only builds a picture of the stunning shores of Papua New Guinea, but also of an interesting and endearing collection of characters. Blue Wing is a fierce, independent young girl who wants to find her own way. When she meets Maple, we see the fledgling signs of a friendship begin to build. As their understanding of themselves and those around them develops, so does their relationship with each other.

The ending was something completely different to what I was expecting; the story is told perfectly from start to finish and this lives up to every good review I have seen about it.

Copyright Sian Trenberth Photography

Zillah Bethell has penned a spell-binding new middle grade novel set against the beautifully-woven backdrop of her childhood home of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea. The Shark Caller is an astonishing story of friendship, forgiveness and bravery which fellow children’s author Sophie Anderson describes as “magnificent and beautiful.”  

Zillah writes exclusively for my blog about the time word went round her village in Papua New Guinea that a film star was hiding out on a bikpela boat beyond the coral reef.


Word got around our village once that a film star was hiding out on a bikpela boat beyond the coral reef. This provoked much discussion about what a film star was.

“Someone who wears sunglasses,” my aunt said. None of us wore sunglasses. We let the fierce sun dazzle our eyeballs all the better to see with.

“Someone who eats in a restaurant with orchids,” was another suggestion. This because an orchid collector often came to the village and made us search for orchids in exchange for razor blades. To sell to the restaurants, she said, where rich people eat.

“Someone who’s sold their soul for a lot of kina,” was another. Gasps at this. What sort of creature would sell their soul for lots of money?

In a world where selfies are omnipresent, it’s hard to imagine I grew up with the belief that a photograph captures a little piece of the soul. It’s a strange belief but it’s also strange that the word ‘capture’ is often used in connection with photography. We capture a likeness or a moment, as if something from real life is imprisoned somehow on celluloid, paper, digital media… Perhaps we love photographs so much because they prove we exist, that we existed, that such a thing really happened. There were no cameras or mirrors in Papua New Guinea. We saw a blurred, imperfect reflection on the surface of the water; we cast elongated or distorted shadows depending on our position relative to the sun. But we never saw ourselves the way other people saw us. Maybe that was a good thing. We saw ourselves from the inside out. We saw ourselves how we thought we were or wanted to be. A different way of seeing I suppose.

I think the Victorians invented new ways of seeing – the microscope and the kaleidoscope for example. Apparently, when the kaleidoscope was invented, people kept bumping into each other on the street, their attention diverted from real life to a device creating illusions with mirrors, beads, coloured glass. I’m interested in what tempts our visual attention: advertisements, of course, posters, movement, graffiti. I like graffiti because it interacts with the cityscape yet comments on it at the same time. I think there was an American graffiti artist who drew silhouettes and shadows ready to pounce round corners, making fear an art form to an extent. When I first came to the UK, my reflection in shop windows kept taking me unawares, and I saw a girl who looked like me trapped behind glass.

***

“D’you want to see the film star?” my friend Flame asked me after we’d heard the rumours.

I didn’t particularly want to but I knew that she did so I nodded.

“When do stars come out?” she asked, nodding to herself as if she’d already planned the whole escapade. Which she had…

So there we were at sundown when we should have been in bed behind our mosquito nets, paddling out to sea in an outrigger. I think I was a little hysterical because I remember pushing the blade down in a very dramatic fashion, spraying us both with salty drops. Luckily the sea was calm and the flickering path of the drowning sun lit our way. 

The sea is the very last thing to go dark.

“Can you hear music?” Flame kept asking as we glided over the coral.

“Maybe,” I said, straining my ears and hearing nothing but the waves.

We looked and looked for what seemed like hours. Until the real stars came out like fireflies, decorating the night. Until my arms and eyes ached. 

“I thought they said it was a bikpela boat,” I groaned.

Bikpela doesn’t mean it exists,” Flame said with a kind of imperfectly perfect logic.

In the end, we paddled back and we chatted about anything except the film star who was obviously a complete figment of everyone’s imagination.

***

Sometimes people I haven’t seen for a long time, send me a recent photograph. I look at it and vaguely recognise the person I once knew. A few days later, however, my mind seems to discard the new image in favour of the image I have of when I knew the person in real life. It’s as if the mind can’t connect to an image that isn’t real.

***

A few days later, Flame and I were taking a fish net to clean in the freshwater creek. Suddenly we noticed a shoe washed up on the shore. It was pink with a very high heel and it was upright as though the person had just stepped out of it. Flame made a kind of yelping noise.

“It’s the film star’s shoe,” she said.

“Is it?”

“Of course.”

I remember we kind of danced around the shoe. I don’t know why but we did. For a few weeks we took turns limping about in it and when we got fed up of that, it came in very useful for digging up sweet potatoes.

I still see that pink stiletto on the white sand with the blue waves behind it. So beautiful and incongruous. Like something from a fashion magazine. After all these years, it keeps grabbing my memory’s visual attention.

I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did! Thank you so much Zillah for writing Film Star just for my blog.

Like the sound of this book? Buy it here: https://amzn.to/36RCNtl

Emily x

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