Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr
I love historic fiction. I especially love historic fiction that makes the distant past seem closer somehow, something relatable rather than strange and mysterious. Historic fiction takes you to places and eras that you thought you could never imagine being real and drops you in the middle of them.
When I realised that Dragonfly Song was set in Minoan times and featured the famous Palace of Knossos, I was super excited. This is an era that I was completely unfamiliar with, but I had a month’s holidays to the Greek Islands planned and Crete was on my itinerary. Even better, we were already planning to visit the Palace of Knossos. I knew I had to save this book to read on my trip. I wanted to absorb it while I was actually there so that the land and the novel would enhance and inform each other.
I am not in any way saying that you need to travel to Crete to enjoy this work, but there is something extra special about reading a book while being in the environment in which it’s set. Dragonfly Song tells the story of Aissa — a virtual orphan with a mysterious past, who craves acceptance from the small island community in which she lives. Believing her to be cursed, they all despise and shun her, leaving her to fend for herself. We follow her struggles and watch her grow into her strength and her special gifts on her journey to realise her true self. This journey is literal as well as metaphorical, as events lead her far from home and ultimately, to the island of Crete.
This book definitely did that special thing for me… that magic of bringing a time long gone to life. The Minoan civilisation existed during the Bronze Age. It’s so old it makes the Parthenon look modern. Its relics are numerous but in many ways mysterious. Much knowledge of this society is speculation: what’s left gives us a tantalising glimpse, but so much is lost to time. Seeing something like Knossos is fascinating, but the presentation of information can be somewhat dry and it’s so hard to picture a ruin like that as a bustling, living, working community.
This is why it was so brilliant reading Dragonfly Song while in Crete. Wendy Orr has made this long lost time a place I could imagine living — instead of remote, archaic and primitive, it felt as rich and comfortable and real as many of the lives we live today.
I found Aissa to be a very likeable heroine. Being a young child, she is understandably vulnerable and fearful, but she learns that she can be strong and self-reliant and stand up to those who treat her poorly. In the face of ostracism, she maintains her dignity and her spirits, and even exercises great compassion for those who wouldn’t have done the same in her place.
As I spent time soaking up the rocky landscapes of the Cyclades, and later exploring the Palace of Knossos, listening to the guide talk about the practice of bull leaping, as I saw the paintings and sculptures in the Heraklion museum — again, bull acrobats, but also snake goddesses — I appreciated all the historical threads Wendy Orr has woven together to tell us Aissa’s story. Even the unusual formatting of this book, a kind of free verse, gives it a mythic quality, like a tale told by the bards. Its simple, formal tone somehow reminded me of an ancient wall painting.
Written for younger readers (9–13), Dragonfly Song is quite simple in terms of plot. As an adult, this is not a book that you would read for that “what happens next, where is this going?” thrill. I enjoyed it for the wonderful picture that it painted of an era I didn’t think I was particularly interested in. For those who enjoy a spot of time travelling, I highly recommend this book.
*Yes, I brought the book with me to the Palace of Knossos so I could photograph it for social media. Doesn't everyone do that?
Photo by Melissa Hill, on location at the Palace of Knossos, Crete