The Shark Caller

Authored by Zillah Bethell
Illustrated by Saara Soderlund
Published by Usborne

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The Shark Caller is set in Papua New Guinea and focuses on the lives of Blue Wing, a young girl who has lost her parents, and Siringen, her adoptive carer. He is also a shark caller – a former hunter of sharks, but now a custodian of the sea. This is what Blue Wing aspires to be too, though Siringen is minded that it is too dangerous for girls. Nor is it tradition. Nor does he think her reasons are true – we learn early on that her parents were victims of a shark attack.

Blue Wing wants revenge.

Tradition is an important theme of the book, from the Papuan pidgin English that the natives speak, to the herbal remedies used by the village ‘witch-doctor’, Chimera. This tradition comes under threat as more and more visitors (or outsiders) arrive, desperate to see the behaviour of the island community. Blue Wing does not like this – the performance that her tribe put on for visitors does not sit well with her. So when Professor Hamelin and his daughter, Maple, move onto the island, and into her former hut, the tides of change feel a little too close for comfort.

As Professor Hamelin carries out his work, the two girls are left to develop an awkward friendship. They learn about one another, mirroring each other’s behaviour. They soon find that their lives mirror one another too, as both have suffered loss, the weight of which hangs heavily upon their young shoulders. While this friendship grows, Professor Hamelin’s behaviour grows ever stranger, and it conspires that his reasons for visiting – to explore the island’s coral – were a lie.

The story is split into three parts – very roughly, the first is about Siringen teaching Blue Wing about respect, both for nature and for other people, not least the newcomer Maple. The two girls dance around each other, unsure whether who can trust whom.

The second part is of Maple and Blue Wing coming together, at one point describing themselves as sisters. Blue Wing is encouraged to find the shark that took her parents. Here, it is tempting to wonder whether Maple is the true shark caller, summoning bedevilment and mischief, directly, through her misplaced encouragement, and indirectly, as her father’s presence begins to muddy the island’s peaceful waters.

The third part is the reason you should read this book. It is quite an ending, and, for my money, the right ending (if there is such a thing). Weight is lifted.

This is what I would call a real page-turner. It is clear something is amiss, and it is clear that the blurring of the traditional and the new will lead to change, but try to second-guess this story at your peril.

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