Review: The Middle of Nowhere by Geraldine McCaughrean (2013)
By Alison Waller
Comity Pinny lives in the middle of nowhere – at a tiny telegraph post in the Australian outback with her recently widowed father, to be precise. At first glance, Kinkindele Repeater Station does not seem to be the most exciting setting for a Geraldine McCaughrean’s latest fictional offering, but as ever, the author manages to conjure up a world teeming with life and energy, even in the most remote of places. Trees, snakes, camels, and horses emerge as vibrant figures in this landscape, while the Station itself is the hub of various social interactions and inevitable tensions between the employees of the British Australian Telegraph Company, the local people who live on the land, and Afghan traders who bring supplies and news. For young Comity, it is the home where her mother used to tell her stories and play the piano, and where her only friend is the Aborigine boy Fred with whom she shares a rich imaginative life. When a new telegraph assistant called arrives, their peaceful existence is destroyed. Quartz Hogg is exciting, but obnoxious and predatory, disrupting Herbert Pinny’s professional operation of the telegraph wire and relentlessly persecuting Fred for daring to befriend a white girl. When Hogg starts drinking, a whole series of events are set in motion that threaten the integrity of the Telegraph Company and the fragile peace of the whole area…and Comity emerges as the remarkable heroine who must save the day.
The telegraph running across this vast nation is a brilliant metaphor for a story that deals in connections, miscommunications, and the relationships between communities as well as between mankind and the environment. The novel also really thrives on the strength of McCaughrean’s heroine, who is vulnerable and sometimes afraid but also clever and brave, often without knowing it. The author has stated before that most of her central characters ‘lack confidence but overcome their timidity or low self-esteem to win through in the end,’ and by the end of The Middle of Nowhere, Comity has certainly been on this journey. She is supported throughout by a cast of comic characters – Quartz Hogg and the Pinny’s awful relatives, ‘the obnoxious Blighs’ are effective as grotesque caricatures – and there is also a sympathetic attempt to show how individuals might negotiate difference, particularly as Comity comes to question things she has been told about the exotic Afghan people. For me, McCaughrean’s only faltering note comes with her portrayal of Fred, whose mixed Aborigine-British dialect is initially difficult to digest and whose role in the story loses momentum towards the thrilling climax. Other than this slight quibble, I enjoyed the novel immensely: it is a worthy addition to McCaughrean’s impressive catalogue of novels for young readers.
The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove.