Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe was one of my favourite books of 2018. Possibly my favourite book. I’ve long been a fan of Dalton’s writing and though I avoid non-fiction, am generally riveted by his pieces in weekend newspapers. Articles or non-fiction essays about seemingly ordinary people and places, made extraordinary through his telling.
Dalton’s second novel, All Our Shimmering Skies is quite different to his first. It’s far more fantastic and mystical. It’s deeper and requires more intellectual translation in many ways. As my taste is fairly prosaic and comprehension very literal I was probably less drawn to the plot. The characters however, are as bewitching as I expected and (again) Dalton’s writing is beyond beautiful.All Our Shimmering Skies
by Trent Dalton
Published by HarperCollins - AU
Source: Harper Collins
Genres: Literary Fiction
Darwin, 1942, and as Japanese bombs rain down, motherless Molly Hook, the gravedigger's daughter, turns once again to the sky for guidance. She carries a stone heart inside a duffel bag next to the map that leads to Longcoat Bob, the deep-country sorcerer who put a curse on her family.
By her side are the most unlikely travelling companions: Greta, a razor-tongued actress, and Yukio, a fallen Japanese fighter pilot. Beyond the bush lies the treasure. Close behind them trails the dark. And above them, always, are the skies.
Molly Hook is seven years of age when the book opens. She’s hearing the story of her grandfather Tom Berry. An embittered gold miner cursed by an Aboriginal man (Bob, in his Napoleonic coat) for stealing his gold (kinda). Molly’s mother is about to leave her (unwillingly) and trying to prepare her daughter for a challenging future.
Molly we learn – other than her mother – loves two things. The sky and her shovel, Bert.
Dalton pulls us out of Molly’s life briefly then. If we didn’t already know about Molly’s pilgrimage from the blurb, we may worry for her safety. As someone who forgets to read the blurb before they start a book, I fretted for young Molly. I found Dalton’s ejection of we readers to Japan and into the life of Yukio Miki and his family to be too sudden. I skimmed pages of details about swords and honour.
Until we returned to Molly. It’s now 1942 and Darwin’s prepping for war. Dalton gives us a vivid picture of the place.
The Darwin sunset is gold then red then purple then black. The town is corrugated-iron fortress homes that fall with a sneeze. Dirt for roads and dirt for air. Cyclone-ravaged for a century. Architectural impermanence. Darwin dreams in sungolds and earth-browns. It dreams in violent rain and wind. p 86
Molly’s now twelve and her heart has been hardened. Her father and uncle (Horace and Aubrey) are drinking anything they can get and becoming increasingly violent.
Molly’s sure – of course – that Bob is to blame for her family’s bad luck. She believes he will lift the curse and that it’s up to her to find him and convince him.
Molly’s partner on the journey (other than Bert, the shovel) is Greta and, for part of it, Yukio.
Although Dalton’s writing is exquisite he lost me a little on occasions. Overly detailed descriptions of cliffs, caves, ravines and wildlife were lost on this nature-agnostic. I suspect I was also a little jaded by the incredibly bad luck Molly and Greta had in terms of those they encounter; and incredulous at the fact they continued to survive.
There’s a strong sense of legacy here. Not just as it relates to the curse upon the ‘kin’ of Tom Berry, but the genesis of her family’s hatred and anger. Molly’s mother reflects on the bitter and vengeful tombstone of her own father.
“Promise me you will make your life graceful, Molly. Promise me you’ll make your life grand and beautiful and poetic, and even if it’s not poetic you’ll write it so it is. You write it, Molly, you understand? Promise me your epitaph won’t be ugly like this. And if someone else writes your epitaph, don’t make them struggle to write your epitaph. You must live a life so full that your epitaph will write itself, you understand? Will you promise me that, Molly?” p 8
It has to be said, Molly is a delight. She has the honest guile of a child but the comprehension and wisdom of someone who’s seen and experienced more than they should. She’s sassy and brave, and though she has no reason to be, she’s hopeful. I also liked Greta – more so as we learn her backstory.
Molly talks to the sky. It bestows upon her gifts. I suspect there’s an obvious sky / heaven analogy there but Molly looks to ‘the sky’ for direction. Literally and metaphorically.
‘What if we’re the treasure?’ she asks. She looks back up at the sky. ‘I’d try to hide us, too. That sky is the lid of a treasure chest. That sky is a blanket. Or a cloak….’
We are treasure buried by the sky,’ Molly says. p 285
As a pragmatic logic-loving type of person I happily followed along on Molly’s pilgrimage, despite it dipping in and out of realism. Dalton’s writing, though dense and detailed in parts is simply stunning.
And to the sky she makes a wish. She wishes to be water. Because water has no feeling. Water feels no pain. Water is never afraid. Water feels no sorrow. And she thinks about the life she could have had if she’d known how to move through this complex earth the way water always knows how to move through it. p 276
In many ways this is quite different to Dalton’s debut novel – at least in terms of the narrative – but there are similarities. We’re offered a child who’s forced to face harsh realities before they should, who looks desperately to those around them for guidance, but ultimately recognises and understand their own gifts.
No weights of gold to measure.
Only scales of truth and lies
For we are living treasure
Under all our shimmering skies. p 357
All our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton was published by Harper Collins and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.