Sibling story a class act
DELVE into any author’s past and often you will find the seeds of their early novels: childhood experiences that make for sometimes captivating, sometimes boring rite of passage stories. Their early adulthood also usually delivers an assortment of odd jobs that add curiosity to the author’s bio. Sydney author, actor and former professional rugby league player Matt Nable ticks all of these boxes, barring the boring one, in this, his second novel, Faces in the Clouds.
Nable’s sense of timing as an author is perfect and any speculation surrounding his timing as an actor can be easily assessed in the coming months, as he’s in two new films, The Killer Elite (alongside Robert De Niro and Clive Owen) and 33 Postcards (with Guy Pearce), and has a prominent role in popular SBS cop show East West 101.
Any scepticism such an eclectic resume invites is quickly banished by this almost faultless, often achingly beautiful novel. Faces in the Clouds is a detailed character study of twin brothers, Stephen and Lawrence Kennedy, as they progress from boys to men. The boys are reared as strict Catholics on an army base (Nable’s father was a soldier) and Stephen’s responsibility towards the intellectually disabled Lawrence is established early.
Lawrence’s life is one of sensory overload, dominated by the smell and touch of objects. Rather than play with a tennis ball, he prefers to sniff it and rub it against his cheeks. His opinions on everything are forthright and not always socially appropriate, a minor nightmare for Stephen, who wants to impress his peer group and the other adults on the base. Still, there is little in the way of conflict between the boys.
We know from the back cover blurb that their parents are killed in a car accident, yet it is still shocking when it occurs. Until this moment the narrative is controlled and concise. Once the boys are shipped off to their spurious godparents the novel loosens up, granting Stephen freedom to explore his adolescence.
Teenagers are often poorly portrayed in fiction, an awkward jumble of the author’s out-of-date memories and imagined contemporary tics, but Stephen is wonderfully rendered as he struggles with sexual confusion and organised religion. His quiet and emotional responses to his brother’s troubled journey through life are affecting, even if he does tend to tear up at the end of a few too many chapters.
Nable’s handling of Lawrence, which could have gone so badly wrong, is exemplary. Secondary characters are also well delineated, notably army brat Johnny Birch and the enduring object of Stephen’s affection, Katie Monahan. That each of their fates becomes obvious as the story progresses is unfortunate, if unavoidable to a degree.
While character studies such as this are fascinating to read, they are hamstrung by a slightness of plot and the reader begins to wonder how the writer will wrap up the novel. Nable does so quickly and a tad conveniently, but it’s a small gripe and he must be congratulated for avoiding the sort of painful Scooby Doo faux-thriller ending that is too frequently employed.
Faces in the Clouds is not done any favours by its lazy cover — a stock photo emblazoned with a terrible font — but Nable’s sublime prose overcomes such shortcomings. Indeed, there are passages so moving one has to put the book down and look around, reconnecting with the world, contemplating its beauty anew through Nable’s imperious gaze. One can only hope he finds the time to squeeze in a few more novels before hosting the 2018 Academy Awards. Chris Flynn is fiction editor of Australian Book Review.