Sib­ling story a class act

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Chris Flynn

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Teenagers are of­ten poorly por­trayed in fic­tion, an awk­ward jum­ble of the au­thor’s out-of-date mem­o­ries and imag­ined con­tem­po­rary tics, but Stephen is won­der­fully ren­dered as he strug­gles with sex­ual con­fu­sion and or­gan­ised re­li­gion.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.

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