Gifts of the Peramangk by Dean Mayes

Gifts of the Peramangk by Dean Mayes
Publisher: Central Avenue Publishing
Genre: Contemporary, Historical
Length: Full Length (344 pages)
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

In 1950s Australia, during the height of the divisive White Australia Policy, Virginia, a young Aboriginal girl is taken from her home and put to work on an isolated and harsh outback station. Her only solace: the violin, taught to her secretly by the kind-hearted wife of the abusive station owner. However, Virginia’s prodigious musical gift cannot save her from years of hardship and racism.

Decades later, her eight year old granddaughter Ruby plays the violin with the passion Virginia once possessed. Amidst poverty, domestic violence and social dysfunction, Ruby escapes her circumstance through her practice with her grandmother’s frail, guiding hand. Ruby’s zeal attracts the attention of an enigmatic music professor and with his help, she embarks on an incredible journey of musical discovery that will culminate in a rare opportunity. But with two cultural worlds colliding, her gift and her ambition will be threatened by deeply ingrained distrust, family jealousies and tragic secrets that will define her very identity.

Langston Hughes once wrote, “what happens to a dream deferred?”… Sixty years ago a dream was ripped away from a musically gifted girl by racism and abuse in the 1950s. Will her equally talented granddaughter overcome the same insurmountable obstacles, or will history repeat itself?

This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read so far in 2013. The settings are described in such painstaking detail that at times they feel like additional characters. When Virigina first arrives at the ranch where she would spend her formative years I could almost taste the gritty air and feel the unforgiving sun beating down on my back. Her granddaughter Ruby’s ramshackle childhood home is equally memorable, and I winced every time its fragile existence was punctuated by violence.

Ruby is described as an eight year old girl, but she speaks and acts like someone several years older. Given her ability to solve complex problems, process traumatic experiences, and travel around the city on her own it would have been more realistic to portray her as an eleven or twelve year old. She is a likeable protagonist, but some of her abilities and insights seem precocious for such a young child.

Two antagonists have story lines that are never sufficiently resolved. While I understand how difficult it can be to step into the shoes of people who are abusive or racist I would have preferred to see their characters fleshed out more. The motives and choices of other characters are eventually revealed to be much more complex than one would have previously assumed, and had the same been done for the antagonists this book would have easily earned 4 stars.

Virginia was by far my favourite character of them all. At the beginning of it I met her as an innocent little girl who lived a simple, happy life with her mother. Her personality and mental health are forever altered by years of abuse, and as much as I would have liked to peek into the dark years of her early adulthood my curiosity was ultimately satisfied by getting to know her in her twilight years. The mistakes she made as a parent have echoed through the generations, and it was satisfying to see her working to correct them.

Gifts of the Peramangk is an achingly beautiful story about perseverance and hope that I wished would never end. Dean Mayes clearly cares deeply about his characters, and his dedication to them shines through. I highly recommend this tale.


  1. Thank you so much for your excellent and considered review. I really appreciate the time you invested in reviewing my work and presenting it here.

    I take your point regarding your impressions of Ruby’s age in contrast to her character traits. I actually spent considerable time mulling over just what age to portray her and my decision was based in part on the eventual time line that the book covers but I also based it upon my research into the very nature of child prodigies and the kinds of qualities they possess – both in terms of intellect and character.

    You also make very valid observations about the key antagonists in the novel and I think you are right that perhaps I struggled to fully step into their respective “shoes” as it were. Still, I think their arcs are compelling in that there is a context to that which makes them “evil” and I would say that both of them are more 3 dimensional than most garden variety bad guys. But it’s a good talking point to consider as I move forward with new projects.

    Again, I thank you for your review of Gifts of the Peramangk. I am very happy with it.

  2. You’re very welcome! It’s so nice to hear your feedback.

    I had no idea that child prodigies could be emotionally advanced for their ages as well. That is fascinating.

    I hope you will consider submitting future books to Long and Short Reviews. I would really like to have the chance to review them.

    • I certainly shall consider further submissions based on the quality of your review and other reviews that I’ve read. Honest and forthright reviews are often a challenge to find so when they do come, I do value them greatly.

      On the point of prodigies, I actually read quite a lot of material about Condaleeza Rice who was identified as a prodigious pianist from a very young age. Growing up in disadvantage in rural Alabama presented distinct challenges for her – particularly during the 1960’s – but, unlike Virginia/Ruby, she had parents who were dedicated to her gift to do anything they could to nurture it.

      Her journey – along with two or three others – formed a part of the basis for Virginia/Ruby in Gifts of the Peramangk.

  3. This is a favourite book of mine. It is one of those stories that sticks with you. I find myself thinking about it often. I loved the complex characters and the relationships within a disfunctional family. I agree with the reviewer, the descriptions are incredibly realistic.

    • Thank you Darlene. Of course you can imagine that means a lot to me.

      Those family relationships are quite commonplace (sadly) in many real life situations that I observed working as a community based nurse a few years ago. It wasn’t difficult to bring those recollections to the story, and I had the added benefit (some would say rare chance) of being able to talk to people from such families candidly. Their experience and emotional responses to their experiences were invaluable in constructing my own Delfey family.

  4. I read this book half a world away from my Aussie home while waiting for my son to be born. This story will stay with me for the rest of my life. Great story!!!!

    • I’m really pleased to hear that Steve. I had the assistance of some really amazing people during the writing of this novel – people who changed my life and who taught me something about life that I regard as priceless.

  5. great book review there Dean, certainly seems like it has a great story in it!

  6. Nicole Gillespie says:

    Wow sounds like a really awesome book Dean! A wonderful review to go with it as well. Congrats!

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