A new novel from Zillah Bethell to be published by Usborne in July 2020.
The Shark Caller is Zillah Bethell’s remarkable new book that leaves you completely stunned and totally in awe of the wonderful storytelling.
Inspired by Bethell’s childhood, The Shark Caller is set against the backdrop of the islands of the South Pacific, and their traditional practice of shark-calling. Zillah was born in the shadow of the volcano Mount Lamington in Papua New Guinea. She grew up without shoes, toys or technology, and consequently spent a lot of time swimming and canoeing in the sea. Zillah’s family returned to the UK when she was ten, she went on to study at Oxford University and now lives in South Wales, but vivid memories of Oceania stayed with her.
Such a stunning book deserves a glorious cover and we are absolutely delighted to exclusively reveal the image below. The cover has been illustrated by Saara Katariina Söderlund, and designed by Katharine Millichope.
Saara Katariina Söderlund is a freelance illustrator. She paints with gouache, sometimes mixing coloured pencil or digital tools into the process. Her own paintings often focus on her love of nature – so for a book set in Papua New Guinea, she was a perfect choice. Saara told us, “I absolutely loved working on this cover. The book has such a special mood and I think it really takes you to the island. I truly enjoyed interpreting that feeling for the cover – and painting all the colourful fish of course!” Saara has also recently illustrated The House of One Hundred Clocks by A M Howell.
Zillah says, “Saara Söderlund has given the greatest gift of allowing me to reinhabit the landscape I left when I was ten. Papua New Guinea in all its fierce, mercurial, quixotic beauty. And I am so very grateful to her.”
You can find out more about Saara’s work on her Instagram, @saarainfeathers or visit her website.
“The sea is always there,” I say. “It always has been. It always will be. People are born and people die. All the taim they are being born and dying, and all the taim in between, the sea is moving up and down, up and down. All the taim. It never ever stops. Never in all taim.”
Blue Wing lives with her guardian Siringen, a shark-caller, on the outskirts of her village. She’s desperate to become a shark-caller herself to avenge the death of her parents, who were killed by a notorious shark, Xok. But it’s against tradition for a girl to become one, and Siringen believes Blue Wing still harbours too much anger in her heart.
When two Americans arrive on the island – Professor Atlas Hamelin and his daughter Maple – Blue Wing is charged with looking after the prickly and infuriating Maple. But, slowly, Blue Wing finds that Maple might be the one person who can understand what she’s going through, having recently lost her own mother. And when they discover that Professor Hamelin is secretly searching for an ancient treasure, they find themselves on a journey to the depths of the ocean, where Xok lies waiting…
The Shark Caller is really something! My first impression after reading the book was to sit, jaw dropped in stunned silence. The book touches the heart, and speaks to the soul.
Let me lay my cards on the table. I am a big Zillah Bethell fan. The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare, her last book, is one of my absolute favourite novels of all time. I am a sucker for good storytelling, the best of which, for my money comes from Katherine Rundell, Gill Lewis, Kiran Millwood-Hargrave, Catherine Johnson, SF Said and Sophie Anderson. I’d put Zillah in this list. These are authors who have a magical ability to craft their stories. Before you read the review, know that I loved it and want you to love it too.
The story is set in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea where Blue Wing and her guardian Siringen are charged with caring for a visiting professor and his daughter. The girls take an instant dislike to each other, but slowly realise they have things in common and a voyage of both self-discovery and learning the ways of friendship begins.
The landscape is beautifully portrayed and we are given a real sense of the geography of the country. A vista of small towns and mines is painted alongside the mountains, forests and shimmering Pacific seas. The flora and fauna of the island is an integral part of the book, not least the sharks, whales and dolphins that swim alongside Blue Wing and The Shark Caller.
The novel is a technicolour, cinematic delight. There are highly vivid, intense scenes; wide-screen viewing in 4D could not be more impactful. Yet this is the joy of reading and particularly the joy of Zillah’s writing – she somehow makes us feel the expansiveness of the landscapes alongside the intimate thoughts and deep emotions of the characters close-up.
There is a juxtaposition between the traditional island ways and the Westernisation of the culture. The ‘Bigman’ (village chief) is a symbol of this: swigging Coca Cola, disowning his heritage and admonishing those who take the remedies of the village witch doctor. His incompatibility and ineptitude with the old ways is often depicted with humour particularly in the awkwardness with which he wears his ceremonial dress.
Bethell’s narration inhabits the character Blue Wing, bringing life and love to her thoughts, actions and talk. Throughout, there is huge wisdom. I particularly like this:
People are like rocks on the shore. The sea will slam into the rocks day after day after day. Hour after hour after hour. Oltaim. But the rocks still look like rocks, they do not become something else. There might be a few scars and parts of the rock might crumble like dust into the sea.But they are still almost the way they were when they were created by Moroa.
The same is with people. There is nothing that can happen on this world that will stop a person being who they are. We are all born a certain way, and we all die a certain way.p259
This is an astonishing book. An exceptional story from an incredibly talented writer. Read it open-mouthed in wonder at the storytelling, revel in the wisdom, the sage and salient thoughts of Blue Wing, the remarkable sensitivity and deftness of touch on essential human themes of life, death, love, family and friendship. More than anything, just read it.
Thank you to Usborne, Zillah Bethell and Stevie Hopwood for choosing us to reveal the cover and for gifting a proof copy of the book. Follow Zillah and Usborne on Twitter and seek out Saara Katariina Söderlund on instagram.