David Malouf: Fly Away Peter (1982)

There really are numerous ways to write about war. While some elements will always remain the same – especially when one of the novel’s themes are the trenches of WWII – accomplished authors, will still find a way to write something completely new. David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter is an excellent example for this.

Being an Australian writer Malouf writes about the war from the Australian perspective which works on two very different levels. One focuses on the land and nature, the other on the people. I have a feeling I would have overread a lot if I hadn’t seen so many Australian WWI movies and read Charlotte Wood’s stunningly beautiful The Submerge Catherdral (here).

It seems to be a trademark of a lot of Australian writing to emphasize the beauty and uniqueness of the flora and the fauna of the continent. Much of it must seem like paradise to the inhabitants and so it’s not surprising Malouf starts the book with the description of nature. Jim Saddler, a young Australian who has never been outside of the country, knows more than anyone about birds. He lies hidden in the marshes and watches them for hours. Ashley Crowther, another young man, but from a very different background, has returned from England where he went to university and come back to take care of his vast family estate. The marshes are part of it. When the two men meet, something almost miraculous happens. Without knowing Jim, Ashley senses the knowledge and the passion he has for birds and offers him a job. This is a dream come true for Jim, a man from a very modest background. The plan is to turn the marshes into a bird sanctuary and Jim will work there, observing, making lists.

While observing one of the rare birds, Jim meets Imogen, an English woman who arrived in Australia not long ago, and has decided to stay here. She is a photographer and earns a living with nature photography.

When the war breaks out none of the three characters thinks at frist it has a lot to do with Australia but in the end, the two men sign up. Of course Ashley will be an officer, while Jim becomes just a simple soldier.

Once in France, the tone and style of the book changes considerably. During the first half of the book, Malouf’s writing was poetic and the structure of the sentences unconventional but when he starts to describe the horror of the war, the writing, moves into the background and is more conventional.

Most of what is described from Jim’s point of view, we know from other WWI novels; the rats, the mud, the corpses, the gas. That is not new but what is new is how the earth is evoked which leads to comparisons. The rich earth of the Australian marshes produced so much beauty, here the earth swallows up everything, they all sink into it in the end.

One of my favourite war movies, Beneath Hill 60,  describes the contribution of Australian miners to WWI. Something the film directors chose to leave out, is mentioned in the book. While digging the tunnel systems beneath Hill 60 and arriving at the enemy lines, the miners discovered the skeleton of a  mammoth.

Jim is a witness of this discovery. It’s a key scene in the novel as it is an example of continuity.

It was a great wonder, and Jim stared along with the rest. A mammoth, thousands of years old. Thousands of years dead. It went back to the beginning, and was here, this giant beast that had fallen to his knees so long ago, among the recent dead, with the sharp little flints laid out beside it which were also a beginning. Looking at them made time seem meaningless. (….)

Continuity is a major theme of the book, continuity and opposites. The land and nature exist and will always exist. They are endless while humanity is not and the individual man even less so. Man creates opposites, the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, the cowardly and the heroic, they all take place inside of the continuity.

The mammoth is a symbol for this and so are Imogen’s photos. At the end of the novel she thinks about how she met Jim. She captured a bird on a  photo while he captured it in his mind. The bird is long gone and so is the picture in Jim’s mind because Jim is gone, but it’s still here, as she remembers both and there is still the photo as well.

It’s hard to do justice to a book like Fly Away Peter in a short post. I hope I was able to convey the beauty and make you curious to find out for yourself. I couldn’t help but had to compare it to two other shorter WWI novels we read last year, Susan Hill’s Strange Meeting (here is the review) and How Many Miles to Babylon by Jennifer Johnston (here is the review). While the latter will always be my favourite, Fly Away Peter is excellent as well and adds another dimension. It contains a rich a meditation and philosophical exploration of WWI from an Australian perspective which is well worth reading.

Have you read David Malouf? Which is your favourite of his books?

The review is a contribution to the Aussie Author Challenge as well as to War Through the Generations.

If you’d like to read another review, Danielle hast posted about it here.

32 thoughts on “David Malouf: Fly Away Peter (1982)

  1. Caroline, between you and Carl I will never run out of book suggestions. This one sounds lovely (can you describe a book about war as lovely?) I haven’t read him yet, but he is on my radar. You just bumped him up the list.

    • It’s a good thing, right? 🙂
      Hard to say if you can call it lovely but I guess, yes, in a way you can.
      He is one of the most important Australian writers and when you read this you will know why.
      The way he contrasted the beauty of Australia with the horror of WWI…

  2. Great review as usual Caroline. You mentioned that the book begins with an unorthodox style of prose and then moves to a more familiar style. That in itself seems unusual. I think that it is somewhat common for a book to begin in a classical style and then move into a modern or postmodern style as it progresses. I have never before heard of a work that moved in the opposite direction. Malouf’s choice sounds like it makes sense in this case. I imagine that this shift a great impact on the tone and feeling of the book.

    • Thanks Brian.
      Malouf is a poet which explains his style, I guess. The first parts are very poetic. I felt the sentences changed radically later on but I haven’t seen this mentioned anyhwere else.

    • I think he should be much wider read. I’m even tempted to read his poetry now.
      I hope you will like it as well.
      I don’t know Ransom, thanks for pointing it out.

  3. I’ve only read ‘Remembering Babylon’, but I’ve also had a copy of ‘Ransom’ on my shelves for a while now. He is a very well-thought-of writer here in Oz, so i should get around to reading more of his books at some point 😉

    Regarding the landscape, part of the reason for this predominance of natural writing is the sense that for those of European descent, it’s somehow alien and ever-so-slightly threatening – this is not the rolling English countryside…

    • Remembering babylon seems the most famous. I’ll get to that evenutually as well.
      You are right, of course, and this difference between the English countryside and Australia is mentioned or the attempt of the British to create English gardens in Australia which dind’t work.

  4. David Malouf in on that huge ‘really must get around to reading’ list of authors that grows by the day. Actually I don’t know why I don’t read more Australian authors as my experience with Kathryn Heyman (who I think you’d love) and Drusilla Modjeska was so good. Lovely review, Caroline – it sounds like a very intriguing novel.

    • Thanks, Litlove. i hink you would like this despite the war theme. It’s so much more than that.
      I wonder as well why i didn’t read more Australian authors in the past. Each one has been a discovery so far.
      Thanks for the suggestions.

  5. He seems a good way to explore Australian literature, your review is convincing. I’d rather read about WWI than WWII. Out of curiosity, to which battle front was he sent? In the North or in Lorraine?

    • Yes, he is a good introduction, I would say. I know my readalong doesn’t show but I’m far more interested in WWI and next year I’ll try to keep the WWII novels to a minimum.
      Shame on me….I can’t remember which front but would say the North.

  6. I am with TBM, you always have books I have never heard of from various genre.

    This one sounds lovely, but your review doesnt explain what’s Imogen part here? I mean after the boys went to war.

    • My review doesn’t say because she is only briefly mentioned again, at the end, when she thinks about the loss and the photos. It’s interesting you should ask because that’s the only flaw I saw in this book. It contained a longer novel but he chose to write the shorter one that’s why there are some open questions. I would have really enjoyed to read more about Imogen. Since the bok is highy symbolical, one could presume, that she being a woman, moved to Ausralia, stayed in the nature, while men had to leave “paradise” and go to war. After all, men start wars, not women.

  7. Lovely post for a very lovely (even though it’s a war story) book! There really is a lot to think about in the story and you’re right it’s hard to convey it all in a post–I felt the same way. I think it is a book that could easily be read again and appreciated even more. I need to read more Australian literature I think-I do love the focus on nature. Thanks for the reminder of Charlotte Wood’s book–I noted it down before and really need to look for a copy. Thanks also for the link to my post. 🙂

    • Thanks, Danielle. And you’re welcome.
      I like the focus on nature a lot. Not that you do not find that in US or European books but it’s done in a very different way. I know I will read more Australaian books before the end of the challange. Kate Grenville might be a good choice as well.
      Fly Away Pter is a book to read twice. It’s far more complex that one might think at first.

  8. Malouf is a wonderful writer. I haven’t read this book, but I want to now due to your review. Have you read Tim Winton’s Dirt Music? That’s set in the area where I live now and where I used to live, on the edge of the desert up north. We have a different sense of landscape here than you do in Europe, I think. The “outback” here is almost a mystical place: harsh, dangerous, but very beautiful. You can really lose yourself and find yourself out there.

    • I really liked his writing and will read him again. I’ve got Dirt Music, Tim Winton is another author I like a lot. It’s funny you should mention it as I had it in my hands recently. I’m very tempted to read it now. I like that aspect about the landscape very much. I don’t doubt that the experience of it can be mystical. I need to visit one day.

  9. I like this different take on the “traditional” war story. The discovery of the mammoth skeleton is such an unusual point of view, it sounds like it adds a very interesting layer to the story.

    I also like how you described the lyrical prose style of Malouf. It’s quite a paradox to the horror of war.

    • Te way he wrote this book makes it one of those that’s interesting for “pure” readers and writers alike. The mammoth episode was extremely powerful. It’s a true story but the filmmakers of Hill 60 chose to leave it out as it would add too much side story to the movie. I thought that’s interesting.

  10. Nice review, Caroline. The initial part of the book where Malouf describes the nature in Australia, seems to be quite haunting. I don’t know why the war came and spoilt all that.

    • It’s quite a drastic change. And sad too. I wanted to read more about those three characters. It’s as if their stories were never finished but I suppose that’s what he wanted to show. War just snatches people.

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