Fourteen-year-old Abigail Kirk was originally, as an infant, christened Lynette, a name which her mother Katherine regrets giving her, as she finds it ugly. For the first ten years of her life, “Lynnie” Kirk was “happy as a lark,” hot-headed but devoted to her parents—especially her father, whom she saw as a “king.” When Abigail’s father Weyland left her and her mother and went off with another woman, he promised Lynnie that he would come home often, but in response Lynnie hit her father on the nose. After he left, Lynnie commanded her mother to never call her by her name again.
The novel’s opening paragraphs describe how Abigail, as a child, was a completely different person from who she is today—her name change is reflective of the vast changes she has undergone. Abigail’s abandonment of her given name—and thus, symbolically, of her past—shows how the girl has a flippant relationship with history and legacy as the story begins.
Katherine tried to explain to her daughter that just because her father wanted to leave their marriage, his departure had no effect on his love for Lynnie, but the girl only retreated further and further into herself, refusing to answer to her given name. Things only got worse when Kathy sold their family home and moved into an apartment unit that Weyland—an architect—had given to her. Her daughter was incensed that Kathy would have accepted such a gift, despite the fact that the apartment was a fine, expansive unit in a high-rise tower in Sydney.
The beginning of the novel sets up Abigail’s difficult and strained relationship to the concept of family, and of duty toward one’s own kin. Abigail is eager to cut out a family member who has wounded her, and she wants to make even the thought of reconciliation a difficult one.
“The ex-Lynette” eventually stumbled upon a new name through her grandmother, with whom she had a contentious relationship. After “ex-Lynette”’s grandmother complained to Kathy that Kathy’s daughter had become “a little witch,” the girl decided she wanted a witch’s name, and selected Abigail as her new name, despite her mother’s protestations. Abigail took the name and vowed that when she was old enough, she would change her surname as well.
Abigail wants to distance herself from members of her family who have wronged her, but also from those who haven’t. Abigail picks a strange name that no one else likes in order to individuate herself from the rest of her family, beginning a years-long process of removing herself emotionally from those around her.
Abigail, now fourteen, is a thin, plain girl who is studious and clever but reserved and quiet. She is not very well-liked at school, and the other children think she is odd because she shirks trends and has no interest in boys, but Abigail does not mind—on the inside, she feels “a hundred years older and wiser than this love-mad rabble in her class.” She purposefully hides the truth of herself away from everyone, including her mother, and cultivates an expressionless, bland exterior. Lately, Abigail has been longing for someone to share her secrets with, though she admits to herself that even she does not know what the secrets of her inner self truly are.
Abigail does everything in her power to set herself apart not just from her family, but from her peers at school as well. Abigail, as a product of her father’s betrayal, looks down on any form of love and wants to believe that she could never fall victim to the “madness” that feelings of love engender. Despite her aloofness, Abigail has of late found herself longing for more, but pushes these feelings away and attempts to bury them.
The May holidays arrive—they always make Abigail feel “forlorn and restless,” and rather than helping her mother at her antiques shop she spends her days sulking about the house. Abigail is profoundly aware that something is missing. When she was younger, she always assumed it was her father—despite her hatred for him, she missed him terribly. Now that Abigail is older, she begins to realize that the “empty place inside” of her is not due to her father’s absence—it is a part of her, and she does not know what it is, or why it is there.
Abigail has tried to suppress the emptiness that her removal from her family and her peers created in her. She cannot ignore it, though, and as she reckons with how lately this emptiness has taken hold of her and become nearly unbearable, she becomes frightened to realize that its cause, and thus its cure, are completely unknown.
Abigail has a close friendship with her mother. Back when their family all lived together in the suburbs, Kathy had collected and kept vintage and antique odds and ends. After Weyland left, Kathy rented a storefront on a high street and opened an antiques shop called Magpies, which has become popular over the years.
Kathy’s shop demonstrates the fact that Abigail’s mother, unlike Abigail herself, has an interest in and a respect for history, legacy, and the past.
Abigail, bored and lonely, gets up from her brown armchair and goes to visit the Crowns, her neighbors. Justine Crown is the mother of four-year-old Natalie and six-year-old Vincent. Natalie is sweet, but Vincent is a monster. Abigail feels protective of Natalie, who often has fevers and nightmares. As soon as the Crowns’ door swings open, Vincent teases Abigail for having “Dracula teeth.” He asks his sister, calling her “Fat Nat,” if she can see them too. Despite herself, Abigail instantly becomes self-conscious, listing in her head all the things she does not like about herself—most of all, her flat and narrow figure.
Despite the fact that Abigail tells herself she does not need connection with other people, she nonetheless seeks it out in her next-door neighbors, longing to be a part of a whole family. Even though she can see the flaws in the Crown family, she again and again returns voluntarily to them, offering her babysitting services to Justine.
Abigail steels herself against the monstrous Vincent’s nagging and offers Justine to take the two to the playground for a while, so Justine can have some peace. As Abigail leads the children out of the building, she cannot help but admire a plaque in the lobby which lists her father, Weyland Kirk, as an architect of the Mitchell building.
This passage shows, again, how despite Abigail’s self-professed hatred of her father and desire to keep him away from her, she cannot help longing, on some level, for a point of connection with the man.
Down at the playground, a harsh wind is blowing. Vincent runs off immediately to play with the other children gathered there, most of whom also live in Mitchell. Abigail observes the children “racing dementedly back and forth,” clearly playing some kind of group game. Abigail asks Natalie if she would like to join the game, but Natalie shakes her head and begins to cry. Natalie tells Abigail that the game the children are playing is called “Beatie Bow,” and it scares her—nevertheless, Natalie says, she likes to watch.
The strange game Beatie Bow is shown to have a power over Natalie, Vincent, and their playmates. Abigail is curious about the game, and especially intrigued by the fact that though the game scares Natalie, she still wants to be near it.
Abigail and Natalie watch the game—a girl stands in the middle of a circle of children, playing the figure of a mother, or “Mudda.” A child makes a scraping sound, and the others then ask “Mudda” what the noise is—she insists it’s just the dog at the door. A second child makes a horrible moan, and the others ask what the noise is—“Mudda” replies that it is just the wind. A third child drops rocks on the ground, and Mudda tells the chorus of children that it is only “the cow in the byre, the horse in the stall.” At this point, Natalie puts her hands over her eyes. Mudda then points past the circle of children—a girl in a white sheet is walking toward them. Mudda cries that Beatie Bow has risen from the dead, and the circle of children breaks—they begin shrieking and running across the playground.
The game is revealed to be a rather macabre spectacle that escalates in scariness and anticipatory excitement until the ghost of Beatie Bow is finally revealed to be hungry for the “souls” of other children. The unsettling nature of the game puzzles Abigail, especially because despite its dark nature the children playing it seem ecstatic, exuberant, and completely engaged.
Natalie explains that if the person playing Beatie Bow catches someone, that person then becomes the next Beatie Bow. Natalie tells Abigail that the game does actually frighten many of the children who play it, since so often they stay and play after dark. The only girl who never seems to get scared, Natalie says, is a “little furry girl” who always stands in the corner of the playground and watches.
The unsettling game is bookended by the fact that Natalie often sees a strange little girl in the corner of the playground. This scene serves to introduce a sort of magic, or at least a small hint of the supernatural, into the narrative.
Vincent approaches Abigail and asks if he can play once more—Abigail tells him that it is time to go home, and it is already too cold for Natalie. Vincent makes a rude gesture at the two girls and then runs back into the building’s lobby. Abigail follows him in, and as she stands with him waiting for the elevator, she can see that he is trembling all over. Abigail decides to tell Justine about the “too-exciting game” Vincent has been playing.
Vincent has clearly become over-excited by the game, a fact that further disturbs Abigail. Perhaps more unsettling than the children’s reaction to the game is the fact that their knowledge of it differentiates them from her—they hold a kind of knowledge or wisdom that allows them to create their own little world, or perhaps to connect to another world altogether.
Inside the apartment, Abigail offers to stay until dinner so that she can entertain Natalie while Justine cooks and gets ready for dinner. Justine suggests Abigail help Natalie sew some new clothes for her teddy bear, knowing that Abigail enjoys sewing and makes many of her own clothes. Abigail’s grandmother hates all the clothes she makes, and often comments on their ugliness, but Abigail’s mother defends Abigail’s creativity.
This passage introduces Abigail’s affinity for making clothing, which will become a major symbol throughout the novel, representing the similarities that can be found, against all odds, between people from vastly different worlds. Here, Abigail plans to help Natalie make clothes for her teddy—clothes are a bridge between Abigail and Natalie, who are different but still care for one another.
Abigail and Natalie pick through a bag of fabric, testing swatches against Natalie’s teddy. Abigail tells Natalie about a dress she has nearly finished for herself, made from an old Edwardian curtain. As the two girls sift through the fabrics, Abigail spots a strangely-shaped piece of yellow crochet—it is very fine work, nearly like lace. Justine comes into the room, and, seeing Abigail with the rag, asks for it, saying she’ll use it as a dishcloth or something—it’s been around forever. Abigail, though, asks if she can keep it—it will be just the right yoke for her new high-necked Edwardian curtain dress.
Despite Abigail’s relative apathy toward the past, she is proud of a dress she is making from some old fabric. Clothes are shown here to be a bridge—even a tentative one—between Abigail and the idea of a relationship to history and legacy. When Abigail uncovers the shabby crochet in Justine’s grab-bag and decides it would look perfect on her new dress, she is again using clothes, and the making of them, as a point of connection.
Abigail says goodbye to the Crowns and heads home, where she carefully washes and dries the fabric. Abigail examines the pattern more closely and sees that it is a design of a delicate plant with a flower rising up out of five heart-shaped leaves. Between two leaves, Abigail makes out two tiny initials: A.T. When Kathy arrives home, she admires the piece of crochet and offers to sell it in the shop, but Abigail declines. Abigail stitches the yoke to her dress, trying to make the stitches as fine as she can. As she works, she realizes she has seen the flower in a book before—it is called Parnassus Grass. Abigail heads to bed and floats easily off to sleep. She dreams of the smell of burnt sugar, and a closed door with an iron fist for a knocker; tied to the door knocker is a yellow rag.
The description of the pattern on the crochet, and Abigail’s careful handling of it and interest in it, furthers the idea of clothing as a way for Abigail to connect with the world around her. Despite the ways Abigail is stunted in terms of making connections, clothes help her to connect with the past, with other people’s legacies, and with her own family, as she and her mother share an interest in this one object. Abigail’s peculiar dream at the end of the chapter serves to heighten the slightly magical bent of the story and foreshadow something both intriguing and unsettling.