OUT OF THE BLUE

The sky is full of gifts, for peo­ple who know where to look. An ex­clu­sive ex­tract from All Our Shim­mer­ing Skies, the new novel by Trent Dal­ton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Here lies Peggy Salmon Who fished for love and wine Though it was no feast nor famine She al­ways dropped a line

Abull ant crawls across a curse. The bull ant’s head is blood red and it stops and starts and stops and starts and moves on through a chis­elled grave­stone let­ter ‘‘C’’ and Molly Hook, aged seven, won­ders if the bull ant has ever been able to see the whole of the sky given all those magic grav­ity an­gles bull ants walk. And if it has no sky to see then she will make a sky for it. The bull ant fol­lows the curved bot­tom of a ‘‘U’’ and moves to an ‘‘R’’ and winds through a twist­ing ‘‘S’’ and ex­its through an ‘‘E’’.

Molly is the gravedig­ger girl. She’s heard peo­ple in town call her that. Poor lit­tle gravedig­ger girl. Mad lit­tle gravedig­ger girl. She leans on her shovel. It has a wooden han­dle as long as she is tall, with a wide dirt-stained sheet-steel blade with teeth on its sides for root cut­ting. Molly has given the shovel a name be­cause she cares for it. She calls the shovel Bert be­cause those side teeth re­mind her of the de­cay­ing and ici­cle-shaped fangs of Bert Green who runs the Sugar Lane lolly shop on Shep­herd Street.

Bert the shovel has helped dig twenty-six graves for her so far this year, her first year dig­ging graves with her mother and fa­ther and un­cle. Bert has killed a black whip­snake for her.

Molly’s mother, Vi­o­let, says Bert is Molly’s sec­ond best friend. Molly’s mother says her first best friend is the sky. Be­cause the sky is ev­ery girl’s best friend.

There are things the sky will tell a girl about her­self that a friend could never tell her. Molly’s mother says the sky is watch­ing over Molly for a rea­son. Ev­ery les­son she will ever need to learn about her­self is wait­ing up there in that sky, and all she has to do is look up.

Molly’s bare feet are dirt-stained like the shovel face and there are cop­per-coloured lines of ceme­tery clay where her el­bows and knees bend. Molly, who is right to con­sider this ram­bling and run­down and near-dead ceme­tery her queen­dom, hops onto a slab of old black stone and kneels down to put a big blue eye­ball up close to the crawl­ing bull ant and she won­ders if the ant can see the deep dark blues in her eyes and thinks that if the ant can see that kind of blue then maybe it will know what it feels like to see all of the vast blue sky over Dar­win.

‘‘Get off the grave, Molly.’’ ‘‘Sorry, Mum.’’

The sky is the colour of 1936 and the sky is the colour of Oc­to­ber. Seen from the blue sky above and look­ing down and look­ing closer in and closer in, they are mother and daugh­ter stand­ing be­fore a gold­miner’s grave in the fur­ther­most plot in the fur­ther­most cor­ner from the gravel en­trance to Hol­low Wood Ceme­tery.

They are older and younger ver­sions of them­selves. Molly Hook with curled brown hair, bony and care­less. Vi­o­let Hook with curled brown hair, bony and trou­bled. She’s hold­ing some­thing be­hind her back that her daugh­ter is too busy, too Molly, to no­tice.

Vi­o­let Hook, the gravedig­ger mum, al­ways hid­ing some­thing. Her shak­ing fin­gers, her thoughts. The gravedig­ger mum, bury­ing dead bod­ies in the dirt and bury­ing se­crets alive in­side her­self. The gravedig­ger mum, walk­ing up­right but buried deep in think­ing.

She stands at the foot of the old lime­stone grave, grey stone weath­ered into black; por­ous and crum­bling and ru­ined like the peo­ple who paid for the cheap graves in this cheap ceme­tery, and ru­ined like Aubrey Hook and his younger brother, Horace Hook – Molly’s fa­ther, Vi­o­let’s hus­band – the pen­ni­less drunk­ards who are tall and black-hat­ted and sweat-faced and rarely home.

The black-eyed broth­ers who in­her­ited this ceme­tery and who re­luc­tantly keep its crooked and rusted gates open, over­see­ing ceme­tery busi­ness from the pubs and the gin bars in Dar­win town and from a lamp-lit and worn red vel­vet lounge five miles away in the un­der­ground opium brothel be­neath Ed­die Loong’s sprawl­ing work­shed on Gar­dens Road, where he dries and salts the North­ern Ter­ri­tory mul­let he ships to Hong Kong.

Molly plants her right hand on the grave slab and, be­cause she wants to and be­cause she can, she spins off the grave­stone into a se­ries of twirls ex­e­cuted so wildly and so freely that she’s struck by a dizzy spell and has to turn her eyes to the sky to find her bal­ance again. And she spots some­thing up there.

‘‘Dol­phin swim­ming,’’ Molly says, as ca­su­ally as she would note a mos­quito on her el­bow. Vi­o­let looks up to find Molly’s dol­phin, which is a cloud nudg­ing up to a thicker cloud that Vi­o­let ini­tially sees as an igloo be­fore chang­ing her mind. ‘‘Big fat rat lick­ing its back­side,’’ she says. Molly nods, howl­ing with laugh­ter.

Vi­o­let wears an old white li­nen dress and her pale skin is red from the Dar­win sun, hot from the Dar­win heat. She’s still clutch­ing some­thing be­hind her back, hid­ing this thing from her daugh­ter.

‘‘Stand be­side me, Molly,’’ Vi­o­let says. Molly and Bert the shovel, stout and re­li­able, take their place be­side Vi­o­let. Molly looks at the thing Vi­o­let seems struck by. A name on a head­stone. ‘‘Who was Tom Berry?’’ Molly asks.

‘‘Tom Berry was a trea­sure hunter,’’ Vi­o­let says. ‘‘A trea­sure hunter?’’ Molly gasps.

‘‘Tom Berry searched ev­ery cor­ner of this land for gold,’’ Vi­o­let says.

Molly finds num­bers be­neath the name on the head­stone: 1868–1929. ‘‘Tom Berry was your grand­fa­ther, Molly.’’ There are so many words be­neath those num­bers: cramped and busy and too small, fill­ing ev­ery avail­able space on the head­stone. It’s less an epi­taph than a warn­ing, or a public ser­vice mes­sage for the peo­ple of Dar­win, and Molly strug­gles to fathom its mean­ing.

LET IT BE KNOWN I DIED ACCURSED BY A SORCERER. I TOOK RAW GOLD FROM LAND BE­LONG­ING TO THE BLACK NAMED LONGCOAT BOB AND I SWEAR, UN­DER GOD, HE PUT A CURSE ON ME AND MY KIN FOR THE SIN OF MY GREED. LONGCOAT BOB TURNED OUR TRUE HEARTS TO STONE. I PUT THAT GOLD BACK BUT LONGCOAT BOB DID NOT LIFT HIS CURSE AND I REST HERE DEAD WITH ONE

RE­GRET: THAT I DID NOT KILL LONGCOAT BOB WHEN I HAD THE CHANCE. ALAS, I WILL TAKE MY CHANCE IN HELL.

‘‘What’s all the words for, Mum?’’

‘‘It’s called an epi­taph, Molly.’’

‘‘What’s an epi­taph, Mum?’’

‘‘It’s the story of a life.’’

Molly stud­ies the words. She points her fin­ger at a word in the sec­ond line. ‘‘A maker of magic,’’ Vi­o­let says.

Molly points at an­other word. ‘‘Bad magic for some­one who might de­serve it,’’ Vi­o­let says.

The child’s fin­ger on an­other word. ‘‘Kin,’’ Vi­o­let says. ‘‘It means fam­ily, Molly.’’

‘‘Fa­thers?’’ ‘‘Yes, Molly.’’ ‘‘Moth­ers?’’ Molly.’’ ‘‘Daugh­ters?’’ ‘‘Yes, Molly.’’

Molly’s right fore­fin­ger nail scratches at Bert’s han­dle. ‘‘Did Longcoat Bob turn your heart to stone, Mum?’’

A long si­lence. Vi­o­let Hook and her shak­ing hands. A long lock of curled brown hair blow­ing across her eyes.

‘‘This epi­taph is ugly, Molly,’’ Vi­o­let says. ‘‘Your grand­fa­ther has tar­nished his life story with blus­ter and venge­ful thoughts.

An epi­taph should be grace­ful and it should be true. This epi­taph is only one of those things. An epi­taph should be poetic, Molly.’’

Molly turns to her mother. ‘‘Like the writ­ing on Mrs Salmon’s grave, Mum?’’ ‘‘Yes,

Stephen Romei

Trent Dal­ton’s 2018 de­but novel, Boy Swal­lows Uni­verse, has just passed 500,000 copies in sales. This is tremen­dous for the Bris­bane-based au­thor, a col­league on this news­pa­per, but it also puts enor­mous pres­sure on his next book. Well, in my opin­ion, not only has Dal­ton over­come the dreaded sec­ond-novel syn­drome, he has smashed it out of the park in the man­ner of, to adapt a cricket jin­gle I know he’ll ap­pre­ci­ate, “Hook­sey clear­ing pick­ets”.

I’ll put this up­front: I think All Our Shim­mer­ing Skies (4th Es­tate, 448pp, $32.99) is even bet­ter than Boy Swal­lows Uni­verse. We are run­ning an ex­tract here today and the novel will be re­viewed in full by Ge­ordie Wil­liamson in com­ing weeks.

Dal­ton has re­sisted the temp­ta­tion to fol­low a suc­cess­ful de­but with a se­quel. Boy Swal­lows Uni­verse is a semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal com­ing-of-age novel set in the seed­ier side of 1980s Bris­bane where the au­thor grew up. All Our Shim­mer­ing Skies is dif­fer­ent in terms of set­ting, char­ac­ters, themes and tech­nique. It is largely set in Dar­win and en­vi­rons dur­ing World War II. The de­scrip­tion of the Ja­panese bomb­ing of that city and its af­ter­math is haunt­ing.

The main char­ac­ters are Molly Hook, seven at the start, al­most 13 at the end, and ac­tress Greta Maze, who is 33 when we first meet her, blonde, green-eyed, stand­ing on a truck tray and quot­ing from Mac­beth. As the ex­tract sug­gests, Molly’s mother leaves her at the out­set. She is now in the hands of her fa­ther, Horace Hook, and his older brother, Aubrey Hook, who looks like a vaude­ville vil­lain, though his char­ac­ter is more com­plex than that. There’s a whiff of south­ern gothic here, with Molly re­mind­ing me of Scout Finch from Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill A Mock­ing­bird.

The Hooks are gravedig­gers by trade, and Molly and her “best friend” Bert the shovel are part of the fam­ily busi­ness. As she walks through the ceme­tery, look­ing at the head­stones and the flow­ers on the graves, Molly thinks, “So much love in­side a ceme­tery. So much loss, but so much love.” That is beau­ti­ful. There’s a curse on the Hooks, im­posed by an Indige­nous man known as Longcoat Bob be­cause he wears a Napoleonic over­coat. He laid down the curse af­ter Molly’s poetic, prospect­ing ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, Tom Berry, took gold from a place he shouldn’t have.

Molly and Greta (and Bert, im­por­tantly) go on an out­back odyssey to track down Longcoat Bob and ask him to lift the curse. Tall, thin, dark-toothed Aubrey goes af­ter them, no doubt twid­dling his black mous­tache. Molly’s mother tells her to keep her eyes on the sky be­cause she will be send­ing down “sky gifts”. There’s a hu­mor­ous ref­er­ence to Bing Crosby sing­ing Pen­nies From Heaven. Molly talks to the sky and the sky talks back.

The sky does de­liver, yet whether what ar­rives are gifts is a mat­ter of judg­ment. Are the bombs rain­ing from Ja­panese planes gifts? Well, the Hook broth­ers do see a po­ten­tial boom in busi­ness. Is Ja­panese fighter pi­lot Yukio Miki, who para­chutes into the out­back and meets up with Molly and Greta, a gift? Armed with his fam­ily sword, he is a fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter, and it is good to see the war story told partly through a Ja­panese per­spec­tive.

This novel is highly imag­i­na­tive and deeply re­searched. Dal­ton has swapped his own life for the lives of peo­ple he can­not have known and his own back yard for a place and time he can­not have ex­pe­ri­enced. The lan­guage is el­e­gant, the di­a­logue is true and there are times when the au­thor lets loose his comic side.

This is a novel with fe­male friend­ship at its cen­tre. When Molly, think­ing about her un­cle, asks “How do you love some­one and hate them at the same time?”, Greta replies: “You’ll un­der­stand when you find a man of your own.” We learn more about Greta and Aubrey later. Early in their jour­ney, Molly and Greta are charged at by buf­faloes and then con­fronted by croc­o­diles in a creek. Molly be­lieves Longcoat Bob has sent the beasts as a warn­ing. Greta coun­ters that the buf­faloes ran be­cause they were scared. “That’s the nat­u­ral re­sponse, you see, Molly, when you’re scared of some­thing, like, oh, I don’t know, say, see­ing three adult croc­o­diles half­way up black arse Can­dle­light f..king Creek!”

There are su­perb set pieces, such as Swiftean scene when Molly and Greta are trapped in a tin mine run by men who ap­pear to have lep­rosy. With mo­ments such as this, and with Molly and the talk­ing sky, the au­thor pulls off a dar­ing move into mag­i­cal re­al­ism. It was Peter Carey who said Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez threw open the door he and other writ­ers had been “fee­bly scratch­ing on”. I know Dal­ton, who is so mod­est, would say he isn’t wor­thy to shine Mar­quez’s shoes, or Carey’s for that mat­ter, but this novel puts him on the lit­er­ary A-list, whether he agrees or not.

Booker Prize win­ner Richard Flana­gan is about to re­lease his new novel, The Liv­ing Sea of Wak­ing Dreams. Soon af­ter we will see new books by Alex Miller and Sofie La­guna, who have three Miles Franklins be­tween them, and Craig Sil­vey. So Dal­ton is in the deep end now. I don’t think we need to alert the life­guards. For this reader, the most im­por­tant line in All Our Shim­mer­ing Skies comes from Longcoat Bob: “Carry all you own … But own all you carry.” It means face the truth of who you are, and it’s my ad­vice to the au­thor: own it, carry it. Read­ers will thank you for do­ing so.

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