Book review: The Hummingbird Effect, Kate Mildenhall

Four time lines that stretch from the past into the future follow characters as they navigate events beyond their control.

Kate Mildenhall’s third novel, The Hummingbird Effect, is a condemnation of corporate greed and inactivity on the climate crisis. Rendered in Mildenhall’s signature lyrical prose, this ambitious novel explores the issues of our time through a relatable cast of characters.

The novel is told in four timelines. The first follows a woman called Peggy employed at the Footscray meat works in 1933. Mildenhall’s depiction of coercive control and Peggy’s treatment at the hands of a man, who appears charming and respectable to the outside world, may be set almost a century in the past, but remains far too common in the present day. In the second, Hilda, a former researcher, reflects on her life as the pandemic takes hold. The third follows La, a warehouse worker in 2031 and the fourth is about sisters Maz and Onyx fighting to survive in 2131.  

Woven among the four main timelines is a fifth eponymous thread. Hummingbird, an artificial intelligence, answers the philosophical questions posed to it, sometimes with text and sometimes with exceptionally illustrated diagrams, which invite readers to ponder the complexity of human history. Hummingbird was created to avert disaster, to undo humanity’s worst mistake. But, Mildenhall suggests, AI cannot save us. Only we can do that. 

Mildenhall ensures that the four seemingly disparate main threads contain echoes of one another. In both 1933 and 2031, workers gather and rise up against unfair treatment. It is their collective action, and the glimpse of its success in 2031, that the novel foregrounds, celebrating the power and potential of people working together to achieve a common goal.

In 2020, a short-staffed aged care facility buckles under the weight of the pandemic. Staff manage calls from distressed families, and Hilda remembers how she tried to raise the alarm about climate change with her research, and no one listened. In 2131, Maz and Onyx escape a brutal man to find shelter and safety in an unrecognisable world, ravaged by climate catastrophe. The world is destroyed, but their love remains.

Though each timeline is given a roughly equal portion of the plot, it does at times feel discombobulating to be pulled into one perspective with barely a chance to become engrossed and invested in another.

Read: Book review: Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life, Anna Funder

That aside, the novel is a testament to the strength and struggle of people of marginalised genders existing within a capitalist and patriarchal system across several centuries. Mildenhall manages to imbue each timeline, bleak though its situation may be, with an irrepressible hope. She reminds us that friends and family and love, that whatever joy we can find, are worth believing in and fighting for. 

The Hummingbird Effect by Kate Mildenhall
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9781760855284
Paperback: 320 pages
RRP: $32.99
Publication: August 2023

Laura Pettenuzzo (she/her) is a disabled writer based in Naarm. Her words have appeared in SBS Voices, ABC Everyday, Mascara Literary Review and The Guardian. She is also a member of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council.