When her parents get busy with work, Canadian-born Louisa is shipped off to spend the summer with an uncle she's never met--in the Tarkine forests of Tasmania. Initially, Louisa is agonizingly disinterested in everything outside of her drive to practice her violin. Her uncle is a recluse who lives in an abandoned logging camp turned makeshift animal preserve--and is focused on a dying bandicoot, which has apparently been his sole companion for many years. The only person her age nearby turns out to be an autistic boy named Colin, whose savant expertise for the forest is a counter to his uncertainty over social cues. And there is a family mystery of sorts, revolving around the grandmother that Louisa never knew...
I was drawn to this book because I recognized the hindquarters of a Tasmanian Tiger on the cover. (It was in middle school that I learned of these so recently extinct creatures, and became intensely fascinated with them.) And while it turned out to be far lighter on the "Tigers" than I would have liked, it was still good to see them referenced and given a bit of life.
The pacing is a bit slow, the tension only rising a couple of times. The mystery angle in this story is a bit thin, as well--since no one is actually trying to keep any of the family "secrets" from the MC (Louisa was simply too obsessed with her violin to pay attention to what her mother had tried to explain to her about her great-grandmother, the camp, and the animals their family has long tried to protect.) The bits of her great-grand's diary she's able to read are a delight--written with a strong voice and a sense of historical authenticity. But just as Louisa is starting to connect with her, we find the rest of her personal entries were lost in a fire. And the great-grandmother's voice is, sadly, not revisited.
Louisa herself is a bit difficult to connect with for much of the book. Her fixation on her violin dominates her self-identity, which makes more sense when we eventually learn she's had problems with performance anxiety and failed her previous children's orchestra auditions... Although it's revealed so late into the story, and hinted at so little, it struck this reader as oddly surprising.
On the plus side, Louisa and Colin's friendship is both a prominent element and a highlight--leading to noteworthy character growth for each. Louisa is largely adaptive to Colin's quirks from the get-go (thanks in part to his mother's explanation of his behaviors and difficulties), and at one point even assists him in interpreting the facial expressions and intentions of some of his more snide classmates. And while Colin's savantism stands as a commonly known possible aspect of being on the autism spectrum, his movement coping for agitation/overstimulation is less so.
I would readily recommend this for young contemporary fiction and nature lovers. There's some great potential here for building empathy, educating on species extinction, and expanding familiarity with neurological diversity--all while steeping readers in the atmosphere of an incredibly unique biome.