Book review: All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins Australia)

Humanity loves, among its many peccadilloes and quirks, the idea of positive, elevating, life-inspiring emotions.

With an alacrity bordering on the zealous and borne no doubt of a desperate desire to push aside any idea that we are trapped in a gothic horror show from which there is no reasonable escape, we cram concepts of hope, love and joy into songs, books, movies, poems and all manner of other creative media until they are fit to well and truly burst.

It’s life-affirmingly heartwarming, and often momentarily affecting, but too often, for all their presence, these emotions feel light, fey, paper thin, easily pushed aside by the next trial or tribulation to come our way.

It’s not until you encounter the luminously brutal delight of All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton (Boy Swallows Universe) that you realise that things like love and hope can be robust, strong and capable of withstanding and dealing with anything that comes their way.

They have to be because the harsh darkness of life, the monsters that lurk behind the faces of people who are supposed to love and care for us, are fiercely strong too and if their opposites were not honestly, truly made of steel and unshakeable tenacity, they would have no chance of making a difference.

Molly Hook, a young Darwin girl who lives in the city’s graveyard with her wholly dysfunctional family in the years just before the outbreak of World War Two, knows this better than anyone.

“‘Will you promise me something else, Molly?’

‘Yes, Mum.’

‘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?’

‘I promise, Mum.'” (P. 8)

Hers is a world defined by a father and an uncle, Horace and Aubrey Hook, who spend some of their days digging graves in the family-run cemetery and others, one running into the drunken other, on benders so complete and violent that your only option is to hide away in your bedroom, safe with your mother’s books of Shakespeare, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.

That is assuming they leave you alone at all which is never guaranteed.

Molly has to deal with a lot, and a life-defining tragedy at the age of seven when “the sky is the colour of 1936 and the sky is the colour of October” – the poetry in every gram of the prose that fills All Our Shimmering Skies is a pure delight that conveys so much so beautifully – makes an impact on Molly so that six years later when Japanese bombs are raining down upon her and her family, she feels she has no choice to go deep into the bush and find the legendary Longcoat Bob, an Indigenous sorcerer who may or may not have played a part in the sorry trajectory of the Hook family.

Accompanied in the mad dash out of Darwin by Greta, an actress who dreamt of great things and found them wanting, and later by fallen Japanese pilot Yukio Miki who has a heart almost as big as Molly’s – almost; Molly’s is so big and long-lasting, so tenacious and true that it seems able to handle more trauma and heartache than anyone, seems, of course, being the operative word here – Molly is hoping, in the face of death, bombs and carnage, for a miracle, for a change of fortunes at a time when for many people it feels like the world is coming to a fiery end.

That’s some pretty powerful hope at work, hope so strong and mythically robust, so epically enduring that it can stare in the face of setback after setback and not give up, that it can be guided on a grand if terrifying adventure by vague clues etched on gold-panning plates, and be inspired by the idea of the sky as sprawling blue companion and star-studded guardian who may lie or tell the truth but is always reassuringly there.

This is the hope to which Molly Hook clings with a fierceness borne of necessity, for hers has not been an easy life by any measure, and of pure trust that for all the misery and loss visited upon her, that good things can still happen and that life can still offer the possibility of love, redemption and selfless, true belonging.

Trent Dalton (image courtesy Harper Collins Australia)

Molly Hook is a beacon of love and hope in a world, and all the more so because so much has been done to her that she should have by mean, even at the age of almost 13, be bitter and twisted and incapable of seeing good or magic anywhere.

Buy Molly, wondrous, garrulous, funny, intrepid, tenacious, full of belief in the sky and sky gifts and curses and their lifting Molly still sees the magic, the possibility, still holds to hope as something far from fey but real and true and capable of changing lives and moving mountains.

It is Molly’s spirit that infuses the stunningly gorgeous wonder that is All Our Shimmering Skies with so much humanity, all the richer and impacting for the fact that it has been borne in and tested by things too awful to most people to endure and survive.

So when Molly talks of going to find an Aboriginal elder with the power to change the course of her family’s misbegotten course, and talks to Greta and Yukio about near-Quixotic quests deep into the heart of the Australian bush, which is presented with awestruck reverence by an author who has taken the time to talk to its custodians and see it from their multi-millennia perspective, you embrace her and her out-there ideas because this is Molly Hook we’re talking about it and she is the one person you would and should follow on an adventure this grandly, big-heartedly uncertain.

“‘Hearts don’t turn to stone, Molly,’ Greta says. ‘ But they do turn. One day your heart is filled with nothing but love and then something gets inside and mixes in with all that love and sometimes that thing is black and sometimes it’s cold and feels just like stone because it’s heavy, and sometimes it gets so heavy you can’t carry it inside you no more.’

‘Sometimes I feel mine turning,’ Molly says.

‘Yea, I feel it too,’ Greta says.” (p. 333)

Dalton has freely admitted in more than one interview that he is a writer who pours his heart and soul into his books, and this is evident on every last page of this wondrous book which acknowledges the horror, brutality and cruel injustice of life, which knows they’re there and has lived them, inch by painful inch, but which dares to believe all that pain and hurt and all that crushing loss can be redeemed, reclaimed, and restored.

Not in some airy-fairy, religious revival tent kind of way which dissipates once the preacher’s endorphin-laced oratory has run its fevered course, but in the way that makes in the gritty, nightmarish trenches of life.

Molly Hook and her belief, her enormous heart and her enduring, sparkling, shimmering hope is so beguiling and so affecting because it is not removed from life, it is not a fairytale that has never known how terrible things can be, but because it exists in the fact of all the horribleness, the cruelty and the pain and it keeps believing and loving and holding on anyway.

The transcendent, exquisite joy of All Our Shimmering Skies is that Molly’s faith is rewarded; she goes from a girl with a shovel named Bert for a best friend (this is so endearing and lovely, even more so when Bert acquires a companion near book’s end), a heart-shaped stone and a duffel bag full of food and the collected works of Shakespeare and a vaguely tenacious idea of how to make things better to someone who finds her trust and hope rewarded, though exactly how must, of course, be left to the reading of this life-changing, hope-inspiring, grim reality-countering book.

The world Molly Hook, dear, adorable, you’ll-love-her-forever Molly Hook, inhabits isn’t easy and it’s frequently not kind and all too often not forgiving but it can be enriched, it can be saved and changed, and seeing how this happens, and how life can be turned around in the most magical and wonderful of ways even in the very worst of times will stay with you long after Molly has followed her next road to wherever it may lead.

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