Book review: The Uncaged Sky, Kylie Moore-Gilbert

A memoir about being imprisoned in Iran for 804 days.

The espionage memoir is a genre driven by understatement. It is perhaps a mark of the outward looking nature of memoirists that these books don’t tend to praise the inner strength of their protagonists (although they have a lot of it) or the compromised nature of their adversaries (although their compromises are many) and instead focus on the tropes of freedom. In Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s case, through the symbol of the titular uncaged sky

In Moore-Gilbert’s book, the flight of birds becomes a leitmotif of the former Melbourne University lecturer’s quest for freedom after a long spell of incarceration (804 days to be exact) and a foreshadowing of her eventual fate.

It’s worth noting that birds themselves are a powerful symbol in the culture that imprisoned Moore-Gilbert. It was the medieval Persian poet Rumi who originally wrote that he envied these winged creatures: ‘I want to sing like birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think,’ he once wrote.

Unfortunately, freedom is still a privilege not afforded to everyone in contemporary Iran, and Moore-Gilbert’s memoir is a powerful narrative of what happens when that privilege is denied.

Moore-Gilbert is an Australian academic who was arrested on her way back from a conference on the pretext of having an Israeli husband. The logic of the Iranian dictatorship assumed that she must have been a spy and she was convicted for espionage. Moore-Gilbert chose to serve the prison sentence rather than take the exit offered her: becoming a spy for Iran. This courage is to be applauded, and amplified by the bravery of her fellow detainees: a conservationist, a human rights lawyer, and an executive. Moore-Gilbert’s account is the most gripping when she speaks of the friendships formed out of regard for the pain of others.

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The Uncaged Sky is ultimately a story not about the cost of freedom but of its value, which makes it an account to be treasured. It is also the story, ironically, of one woman’s attempt to ensure her fate isn’t fixed forever in black and white, and is instead left to fly free as a bird.

The Uncaged Sky: my 804 days in an Iranian prison, Kylie Moore-Gilbert
Publisher: Ultimo Press
ISBN: 9781761150401
Format: Paperback
Pages: 416 pp
Publication Date: April 2022
RRP: $34.99

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin