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
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,
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.