By Kirsty Murray
Published by Templar
ISBN 978 1 84877 210 6
Kirsty Murray's new novel is a snappily titled read based on the true story of a troupe of Australian child singers and dancers who toured Asia and India in the early 1900s. It tells what happened when these exploited kids mounted a strike against their manager.
Murray is an elegant writer and her wonderfully natural storytelling is a perfect fit for this subject. We are only into the first half of 2012, but India Dark is certainly one of the outstanding youth fiction books of the year.
The plot kicks off in Melbourne in 1909. Thirteen-year-old Poesy Swift is faced with leaving school and getting a job in one of the town's jam makers, or worse still, working in the terrible local match factory. Encouraged by an older friend, Poesy auditions for a junior theatre company that tours America, Asia and India.
Desperate to get out of Melbourne, young Poesy has no idea what she is letting herself in for as she dances and sings for the directors of the Lilliputians Theatre Troupe. Clearly she has what they're looking for, and soon, Poesy is on a boat leaving Melbourne on a two-year theatre tour of Asia and India. And the future looks all glamour and adventure. What could be better for a 13-year-old wanting to escape a boring life? The company comprises 29 youngsters aged between seven and 18, and a teacher-chaperone to look after their welfare. There is also the company manager, Arthur Percival, an unpleasant, two-faced man with an agenda of his own for going to India.
Murray expertly builds up the tension of shifting friendships and wandering loyalties among the juvenile performers. But there are much darker forces stalking the Lilliputians as they voyage towards India. Percival is a vindictive leader, and steadily starts victimising the children.
By the time the troupe arrives in Madras, things are at breaking point. What can the youngsters do to protect themselves - and what will happen if they dare to try to break free?
Murray narrates her gripping novel through the voices of two of the girls caught up in the action. Poesy is a gentle innocent who gets involved in grim and terrible events without really understanding what is going on. Fifteen-year-old Tilly is savvy, worldly wise and out to get what she can. The different perspectives add tension to a story already stretched like a tight wire.
The events that unfold are dramatic and gripping, and Murray excels at bringing to life all the characters caught up in the drama. The troupe of young performers she has created is a bubbling pan of conflict and intrigue, and when it all boils over the results are devastating.
India Dark is a classy and absorbing novel and one of those rare youth fiction books that hold their own even when set against works for adults.
Don't miss it. It's a dazzling read.
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com