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Book Review

A Bird on My Shoulder
Review by Caroline Jones AO

Lucy Palmer first came into my life as a keen, young English journalist, newly arrived in Australia and determined to meet me. I was impressed by her persistence, her merry yet dry sense of humour, and her quest for self-knowledge, wherever that may lead.

So I should not have been surprised when she joined a 750 kilometre expedition across the wilderness of the Simpson Desert in Central Australia. It proved to be physically punishing, mentally demanding, and psychologically and spiritually transforming. Appropriately it took forty days and forty nights. Two years later she joined another group for an even longer trek across the Great Sandy Desert. Both experiences were profound, and perhaps a preparation for what lay ahead.

But my young friend surprised and alarmed me once again when she took a post as foreign correspondent for AAP in Port Moresby, one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

She was satisfying an obsession with Papua New Guinea, born mysteriously in the local library of her English home town, when she was thirteen. She quotes Graham Greene, that there is ‘always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in’.

‘I knew, with absolute certainty, that everything I ever wanted would be somehow found in this most unlikely and seemingly difficult country’.

And so it was to be. She felt at home with the local people, made friends in the expatriate community and before long, she was presented with a tall, ‘possibly pompous, hopelessly English’ Port Moresby lawyer with ‘a rather attractive patrician face hiding behind impossibly thick 1960s glasses’. He held out a large freckled hand. ‘Julian Thirlwall’, he said. He was many years her senior but charged with a nervous energy that would challenge her in the courtship that soon evolved.

Everything she ever wanted, but much more than she bargained for. In ‘a bird on my shoulder’, Lucy Palmer generously allows us into the six years of her marriage, the birth of their three children, the diagnosis of her beloved husband’s illness, and his stoic, uncomplaining forbearance of the hard, debilitating treatment of cancer. And all too soon into the harrowing, disabling passage of the loss of a loved one, which cannot be foreseen until one has been there. It made me very sad for her.

Lucy Palmer’s moving book is candid in its unvarnished account of the joys and complexities of marriage and family life. It offers an illuminating revelation at the moment of death. And it is bravely honest in its insight into an aching, hollowing grief which is eventually enlightening – to her surprise, and to ours, as readers.

Like its author, the book has become my good friend. It is beautifully written and will offer the reader companionship and reassurance that, in enduring the most confronting times of our lives, we are not alone ... a precious gift indeed.

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