A week before Isobel Callaghan’s ninth birthday, her mother tells her that there will be no presents this year, seeing as their family has to be “very careful about money.” Isobel’s mother says this every year, and every year, Isobel chooses not to believe it—but every year, there is no present.
The first sentences of the book speak of deprivation, withholding, poverty, control, and disappointment—major motifs throughout Isobel’s childhood, as well as the forces that will form her worldview and calibrate the rest of her life.
Isobel’s family arrives for their summer holiday at a lakeside boarding house. The Callaghans always spend their holidays on this “flat reedy shore,” which is shabby and somewhat desolate. Each day of the vacation, Isobel watches to see if her mother or father will head across the lake into town to purchase a present for her from the one tiny shop there.
Despite Isobel’s mother’s claim that their family has no money for presents, they are all on a vacation, which must cost some money. The atmosphere of deceit and uncertainty is palpable in these early passages, and as a result, Isobel constantly believes that her parents will surprise her.
It is January—summer in Australia—and Mrs. Callaghan believes that it is too close to Christmas for birthday presents. Moreover, she tells Isobel, “it is vulgar to celebrate birthdays away from home.” Mrs. Callaghan is constantly coming up with new arguments against a birthday present for Isobel, and with each one, “a strange look of relief” comes over her.
Mrs. Callaghan scrounges for any argument that will allow her to deny her daughter a birthday present. It’s clear that Mrs. Callaghan wants to deprive Isobel of joy, but the truth of the Callaghan’s financial situation and the reasons behind Mrs. Callaghan’s tyranny both remain unclear.
This year, Isobel’s mother has warned her not to go around the lake house telling people it’s her birthday. Last year, Isobel “disgraced the family” by running into the garden shouting that it was her birthday—the other guests at the lake house promptly began showering her with coins and money. When the delighted Isobel returned inside with her “treasure,” her mother was standing there, and forced Isobel to drop all the money. Isobel still doesn’t know what happened to it. Isobel’s mother and father berated her for “begging,” and the day was a terrible one.
Isobel is a child, which means that birthdays are incredibly exciting—a chance to be celebrated, spend time with loved ones, and experience unbridled joy for one day. Isobel is being deprived of these chances, and as a result, she can barely contain her wild desire to be noticed and acknowledged. Her enthusiasm, however, shames her parents and causes them to worry about how others perceive them. They blame it on Isobel’s “disgrace,” but in reality, they probably just don’t want anyone to see the way they abuse and manipulate their children.
Isobel is timid by nature, but still she doesn’t know how she’ll be able to resist telling people that it is her birthday. She plans on telling the tree in the yard tomorrow to feed the impulse. Thinking of this plan, Isobel feels a pain in her throat, “as if she [were] reading The Little Match Girl.”
Isobel knows that her situation is sad and wrong, but because there is no one to take pity on her, she takes pity on herself.
Now in a “reading mood,” Isobel goes to the boarding house’s lounge, where there are bookshelves full of books. Isobel has already finished all the children’s books, and now she moves on to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. As she reads the mystery, “birthdays, injustices, parents all vanish.” She sits on the floor reading until the adults come in for tea, and then heads up to her and Margaret’s bedroom, the book in tow.
As Isobel reads, she feels infinitely lucky to have found a “new place in time” where she can spend her birthday. Presents don’t matter so much, Isobel thinks, when there are books like this one in the world. She reads until Margaret comes in to tell her to wash her hands before dinner. Isobel asks if she can have the light on for a while after dinner—Margaret protests that the girls aren’t allowed to read in bed. Isobel insists that rule only applies at home, not on holidays. Still, she hides the book beneath her pillow. Margaret tells Isobel that she can read as long as she puts the light out before their parents come up to bed—they can see it beneath the door. Isobel is grateful for her sister’s kindness and heads off to wash her hands.
Isobel wishes she could read in peace forever, deep in the new world she has found within the pages of Sherlock Holmes. However, her family is determined to pull her out of her new world and bring her back to reality. Her older sister, Margaret, seems to be somewhat looking out for Isobel’s well-being and half condescending to her younger sister.
Despite the glory of the Holmes book, Isobel can’t help but think how nice it would be if she woke up to a present in the morning—she wishes someone would give her the complete works of Arthur Conan Doyle. After dinner, she plays a game with Margaret, but longs the whole time to go to bed and read. After the girls go up to their room, Isobel puts her clothes on the floor in front of the crack in the door, gets into bed, and reads until she is nearly asleep.
Though Isobel has found a new world for herself in books, she still longs for the things that make the real world worth living in—like the pure, childlike excitement of birthdays and presents. She wants to be a normal girl with a loving family.
In the morning, Isobel wakes up early, and runs out to the tree to tell it that it is her birthday. When she reaches it, she sees another one of the lake house’s guests—a little girl named Caroline Mansell. Isobel, unable to contain herself, asks Caroline if she can tell her a secret. She then confesses that it is her birthday. Caroline replies that birthdays aren’t secrets, except perhaps in the case of Moses. Caroline saunters off, wishing Isobel “many happy returns.” Isobel wishes she had just told the tree.
Isobel spills the secret about her birthday because she longs to connect with other people, be appreciated, and experience friendship. Starved for affection within her own family, Isobel jumps at the chance to connect with a girl her own age.
Isobel washes her face, combs her hair, and heads to one of her special spots—an old chair on the back verandah of the boarding house. She reads until breakfast, and then when the bell calls everyone to the meal, she joins her family and the other guests. As the other patrons of the boarding house ask Isobel what she’s reading, she knows that discussing books in front of her mother is “dangerous ground.” Sure enough, once Isobel tells a young teacher named Miss Halwood that she is reading Sherlock Holmes, her mother reprimands her for taking a “grown-up book” from the library without permission. Miss Halwood attempts to defend Isobel, proclaiming how advanced and special she is, but Mrs. Callaghan orders Isobel to leave the table and go find Margaret. Just at that moment, Margaret enters the room and takes her place at the table.
Isobel’s mother is so controlling that even a normal, pleasant conversation with another guest at the lake house is “dangerous ground.” Isobel is grateful for Miss Halwood’s kindness and for the fact that Miss Halwood gives her the only thing she wants—to be recognized and celebrated for who she is. Isobel’s mother cannot abide anyone speaking kindly to her daughter, however, and attempts to remove Isobel from the table and control her by sending her on an arbitrary errand.
Miss Halwood continues asking Isobel about her reading habits and urges her to look up any words she doesn’t understand in the dictionary. She tells Isobel that she, too, is a bookworm, and wishes she could be Isobel’s age again so that she could read “all the wonderful books” in the world for the first time. Miss Halwood turns to Mrs. Callaghan and asks how old Isobel is. Isobel sees her mother’s face grow red—Isobel has at last, she thinks, caught her parents in a trap. Isobel’s mother only answers, however, that Isobel is nine.
Isobel sees herself reflected in Miss Halwood, who is kind, generous, and understanding. Isobel longs for someone to recognize how her mother is abusing her and for there to be proof of her profound suffering, but her mother is skilled at hiding the depths of her violence and abuse of her daughter.
Isobel feels she is living in two different worlds—one is Miss Halwood’s, where Isobel belongs and things are “solid and predictable,” and the other is a pleasurable but somewhat sickening world in which she is constantly trying to make her mother uncomfortable. The world of Sherlock Holmes, however, is better than both of the other two worlds, and so Isobel excuses herself from the table and returns to the verandah to finish the novel.
Isobel is drawn toward literature and escapism as a result of the tension and anxiety she feels about being caught between two poles. Isobel knows that it is wrong to oppose her mother, but she also knows her mother is wrong. Sherlock Holmes allows her a reprieve from the constant struggle against the woman who is supposed to be her protector.
On the way back to the library to exchange the first Sherlock Holmes book for the second one, Isobel runs into her mother. Mrs. Callaghan instructs Isobel to go down to the shop and buy her a writing pad—she hands Isobel a two-shilling piece and tells her that because it is her birthday, she may keep the change. Isobel goes to the shop and purchases the pad, but the change she gets is so small, that there’s not enough left to buy herself even a little something. As Isobel runs from the shop, she thinks that no matter how she tries, she cannot make herself safe. Isobel prays to the Virgin Mary to stop her from crying and returns to the lake house.
Isobel’s mother attempts to control her daughter in a cruel, new way by forcing her to purchase something on her behalf on her birthday. The family clearly has enough money to buy Isobel a small present—this is perhaps the greatest slight of all. Isobel is devastated but determined not to show weakness by crying—to lose her temper is to let her mother win.
At lunch, everyone else in the lake house is seated—only Isobel’s place is empty, and there is a small parcel wrapped in pink paper and tied with gold string at her place. Isobel sits down warily. Mr. Mansell, Caroline’s father, asks Isobel if she’d like to open her present—she asks Mr. Mansell if the gift is really for her. She hears her mother draw in “a long breath of rage.”
Isobel is delighted by the sight of the first present of her young life—from a stranger, nonetheless—but she knows that because she has broken her promise about revealing her birthday, she has also enraged her mother.
Isobel opens the present. Inside the box is a gold brooch shaped like a basket filled with colored flowers. Isobel is amazed by the gift—“it [is] a present for a real girl,” she thinks. She has hoped for a present year after year, and now that one has finally come, it is “better than anything she could have imagined.” Isobel stares at the brooch as she begins eating, stunned and speechless. Her mother tells the Mansells how kind of them it was to purchase something for Isobel but insists that they shouldn’t have—she is “spoilt enough already.” At these words, Isobel notices that all of the grown-ups at the table are glaring at her mother with “indignation,” except for Mr. Mansell, who is looking right at Isobel with a “bright, soft look.” Isobel wonders what is wrong with what her mother has said.
Isobel is mesmerized by her beautiful present and is so overwhelmed with gratitude that she cannot manage any words, or even a thank you. Isobel’s mother speaks on her behalf, and when she tells the others that Isobel is “spoilt,” an audible surprise runs through the room—this makes it clear that the others know, to some degree at least, that Isobel is mistreated by her parents. It’s clear that Mr. Mansell takes pity on Isobel and wanted to do something small to brighten her day in the face of the evident pain she is in at the hands of her mother.
When Isobel is finished eating, she asks to be excused, and runs away to her bedroom with the brooch. She sits on her bed reading, unwrapping and rewrapping the brooch periodically. After a little while, Isobel hears her mother coming toward her room, and she pushes the box underneath her pillow. She realizes that she is going to be in trouble for having told someone that it was her birthday. She knows that “retribution [is] coming.” Her mother enters the room, advances on Isobel, and begins to slap her violently, calling her an “ungrateful little bitch” and a “thankless little swine,” berating Isobel for not even saying thank you for the brooch and bringing disgrace on their family wherever they go.
Isobel clearly suffers horrific physical violence in this passage, but her mother’s string of insults seem to sting even more. Isobel was of course grateful for the brooch, but having never received a present before, she is unsure of the etiquette around the act. Her mother’s cruelty has resulted in this response in her daughter, and now her mother is punishing her for it—a violent and dangerous cycle.
When Mrs. Callaghan finishes beating Isobel, she leaves the room. Isobel takes the box back out from beneath the pillow and looks at the brooch, rubbing her stinging legs. She wonders why her mother hadn’t taken the brooch from her, and wonders briefly if there are things that even her mother cannot do. That idea, though, is “too large to be coped with.” Isobel pins the brooch to her dress, marveling at the fact that it is hers. She goes over to the mirror and admires the brooch—“in one way or another,” Isobel will wear the brooch “all her life.”
In the wake of the beating, Isobel seems almost nonplussed, implying that violent events like this one are commonplace in the Callaghan family. As Isobel admires the brooch in the mirror, she wonders whether there are limits to what her mother can do to her. As she studies her reflection, Isobel does not yet know that she’ll be wearing the brooch—and all the emotional baggage it symbolizes—for her entire life.