All our shimmering skies by Trent Dalton

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This riveting narrative opens to the lilting sound of poetry, the words of a song evoking a world of people who think, feel, and experience life at a visceral level.  Dalton’s poetic prose lifts the spirits, giving the reader a sense of soaring above the natural world into an imaginary one that exalts human beings above the level of the tedium of daily life. His repetition is like a refrain, telling us of this world that Australians recognize, focusing, in the opening pages, on the life led by gravediggers in the Northern Territory.  He deftly plunges us into the brief experience of this world, when Australia was targeted by enemy aircraft, positioning us to feel the people’s dread of the bombs dropping so unexpectedly, the event that plunged Australia into the war with Japan.  His description of Australia’s brief experience of the catastrophic outcome of the bombing evokes an emotional response to this unique and terrifying experience.

Molly Hook, ‘the graveyard girl’, is the fascinating central character of this narrative.  Dedicated to her work on the graves, she refuses to be cowed by circumstances, and we are immediately captivated by her character.  Molly’s mother asked her to promise to make her life graceful, and to live well, and it is her determination to do so that is at the heart of the narrative. Deeply emotionally connected to her world, yet alone and pragmatic, she is forced to make decisions about her life at a very early age, and Molly considers deeply how she will live. In this narrative we are positioned to understand both the isolation of this part of the country and the challenge it offers to people living in the far northern areas.  Described so beautifully, we envisage the countryside of lush growth, of hilly areas, of lush jungles, and of dry, desert areas.  When the bombs drop on Darwin, it is such an extraordinary experience that the people struggle to come to terms with the outcome.  He focuses on the girl and her choice to flee to a safer place, and it is this place that is so magically evoked in the story.

Trent Dalton has created a world that would be unfamiliar to so many Australians, and it is this world, one of wonderful forests, of water to be found underground, of hills and dry sand dunes, that is explored by the gravedigger girl as she struggles to find her way back to the place that she knew, complex and challenging that this becomes.  This is a glorious novel that reveals so much that most of us might well not have known, and Dalton’s vivid description and poetic prose entrances us.  It would be suitable for adolescent and adult reading. 

Elizabeth Bondar