a bird on my shoulder (allen & unwin)

An unforgettably moving memoir about love and the unexpected gifts that loss and grief can bring.

‘What do you think are the gifts of cancer?’
Even now, all these years later, when I recall the question, a sense of shock still resonates.

I thought of Julian’s gruelling treatment regime, about how all seven of his children were coping seeing him so unwell, so reduced.

Then, in the silence that followed, like the first sprouting of a tiny plant, I began to think about all the good things that Julian and I had experienced because of his illness; amid the strain and fear we had shared precious moments of love and kindness that might not have otherwise happened. I began to cry.

‘Perhaps you could think of Julian’s cancer in another way,’ the counsellor suggested. ‘Maybe it’s like a little bird on your shoulder that’s reminding you how to live.’

Over a decade ago, award-winning journalist Lucy Palmer lost her beloved husband Julian, leaving her alone to raise their three young children on a farm south of Sydney.

This beautifully written memoir tells the story of how Lucy and Julian fell in love with each other and with Papua New Guinea, and traces their family’s return to Australia to face the daunting challenges of Julian’s journey with cancer.

Looking back with both sadness and joy, Lucy’s honest and thoughtful account of finding hope and meaning where none seemed to be, will move and inspire all who read it.

A Bird on My Shoulder offers us new and surprising ways to think about love and death, about the worst that can happen and what it can mean.

There are moments in this record of a marriage, children and the death of a loved one that are almost unbearably sad. But never depressing because, while dealing with death (and being awed by its “beautiful truth”), Lucy Palmer’s tale alerts us to the sheer beauty of life as well. She met her husband when she was a journalist in New Guinea. They had six years; during the last few he was being treated for the cancer he succumbed to. Palmer reflects on the intensity of that time with a hard-won tranquillity – her sure-footed writing accentuating the enormity of the subject and the emotional impact of her loss, the intelligence of her observations adding a meditative level, creating a layered love letter to the ever-present departed

Steven Carroll

Joint winner Prime Minister's Literary Award 2014

A Bird on My Shoulder is an amazing memoir, moving, wise and insightful, and the central themes of love and grief are so beautifully and delicately expressed. It is ‘A Grief Observed’ for the modern age.

Richard Glover


“A Bird on My Shoulder” is candid in its unvarnished account of the joys and complexities of marriage and family life. It offers an illuminating revelation at the moment of death. And it is bravely honest in its insight into an aching, hollowing grief which is eventually enlightening – to her surprise, and to ours, as readers. It is beautifully written and will offer the reader companionship and reassurance that, in enduring the most confronting times of our lives, we are not alone … a precious gift indeed.

Caroline Jones

ABC Australian Story

Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.

Louis L’Amour