All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Trent Dalton’s first book – Boy Swallows Universe – was a best-seller and may soon be made into a film.  Partly based on the author’s life, the book told the story of Eli and is one of love, family and coming-of-age – all told with a touch of magic.

The magic plays a larger part in this new novel – All Our Shimmering Skies – and the protagonist is Molly Hook aged seven at the beginning of the book [in 1936] and about thirteen by its end in 1942.  This book too is one of love, friendship and family; and, as in the first book, the family is a very troubled one.

Molly is the daughter of Horace who along with his brother Aubrey are gravediggers at Hollow Wood Cemetery near Darwin and Molly is known as the gravedigger’s daughter.  Her best friend is Bert – her shovel – with which she is expected to do her share of gravedigging.  Molly is a complex child – she has a love for the poetry of Emily Dickinson and particularly her poem ‘The Lightning is a Yellow Fork’ which suggests there is something beyond the visible sky and beyond Molly’s reach.  The reference to lightning is echoed in a story told later of ‘The Lightning Man’ – a story which belongs to the traditional owners of the region in which the novel is set.  It is the skies – the day sky and the night sky – to which Molly turns when faced with dilemmas beyond her capacity to resolve.

Trent Dalton has skilfully crafted an engaging character in Molly who transcends her troubled and often violent environment and is able to maintain against significant odds a positive spirit.  Her love for an Indigenous boy – Sam Greenway with ‘his spark, his light, his Hollywood charm’ [91] – and later for Greta Maze and Yukio Miki, the Japanese pilot ‘who fell from the sky’, is told with an insightful understanding of the emotional state of a young almost-adolescent girl.  But there is also an unflinching strength and determination in Molly which manifests itself when circumstances demand it.

As a counterpoint to the love and friendship which brings redemption to Molly towards the end of the book, there are, like deep currents in the ocean, recurring themes of hate and violence.  Horace’s and Aubrey’s father Arthur as a fifteen-year-old loved Bonnie Little and ‘loved her absolutely’ [160] until she fell in love with Arthur’s best friend Tom Berry.  From that moment on, he ‘hated her absolutely’ [161] and this hatred bled into a hatred for life which manifested itself into beating his sons ‘with rocks and whip handles and sticks and fists and then he watched his sons grow into muscular teenaged boys who beat each other’ [162].   A generation later, Aubrey falls in love with Tom Berry’s daughter Violet but history – as it is wont to do – repeats itself when he visits Violet and finds her in arms of his younger brother Horace.  From then on, ‘the light in all of his endless dark hours’ [271] was hate.

On 19 February 1942, Darwin is bombed by 242 Japanese aircraft and, along with many other Darwin residents, Molly and Greta abandon Darwin and head to the country.

One of the Japanese pilots, Yukio Miki, faced with the dishonour of firing his machine guns at the fleeing citizens of Darwin, steers the plane towards a mountain and parachutes himself to safety.  It is inevitable in this almost magical story that Yukio and Molly with Greta join forces to pursue Molly’s quest to find the source of her family’s cursed life.

In common with all such quests, the trio is faced with life-threatening encounters and dangerous people like the three men and a boy who have escaped from a leprosarium and are now mining for tin.  The author doesn’t shy away from  viscerally describing the threat: ‘[the men] are laughing now like deranged clowns and their bodies close in on the girls’ [251], but in a display of courage and drawing on her second-hand experience of violence, ‘[Molly] swings her gravedigger shovel and the root cutting teeth of the blade meet the boy’s left ear and the top half of that ear pops away from his head’ [252].

But Aubrey, who survived the bombing which killed Molly’s father Horace, is pursuing them.  In a confrontation which would not be out of place in a horror film, Aubrey falls to his death in the rapids clutching a bag from which all the gold he ever lusted for is being flung into the water.

Led to safety by Sam, Molly and Greta emerge from ‘the stillness of the bush’ and head towards their future.

While All Our Shimmering Skies could be described as a coming-of-age story, it is much more than that.  In glittering prose, Trent Dalton has crafted a story which demonstrates that personal character and what lies within our hearts can transcend even the harshest circumstances – with the help of friends and a touch of magic.  As well as creating memorable characters in Molly and Greta – and for very different reasons – Aubrey and Horace, the author describes with deep affection and knowledge scenes from the Australian landscape.

Trent Dalton is a journalist and two-time winner of a Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism, a four-time winner of a Kennedy Award for Excellence in NSW Journalism and a four-time winner of the national News Award Features Journalist of the Year.  His first novel Boy Swallows Universe has won numerous awards including four at the 2019 Australian Book Industry Awards.

All Our Shimmering Skies

[2020]

by Trent Dalton

Harper Collins

ISBN 978 1 4607 5390 3

$32.99; 436pp

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