A quest is one of the basic kind of stories that resonates most deeply with yearning human beings. What is that thing that we most want, most seek, most miss? What do we most desire?
Seeking that out is the basis for All Our Shimmering Skies, a historical saga by Trent Dalton. Just about every character is on a quest in this large, sprawling novel set in WWII Darwin. Most significant is the main character, 13-year-old Molly Hook. Her mother died when she was seven. Just before she was gone, Molly's mother reminded her to look to the sky for gifts.
Molly's father and uncle are gravediggers, owners of the local cemetery. Their love of the drink has Molly doing most of the work around the house and in the graveyard. She and her steady companion, her trusty shovel, Bert, work long, hard hours.
But despite the brutal conditions under which she lives, and which are amply described, her inner life is not drudgery. Molly's mother also passed along her love of poetry and paying close attention to the beauty of nature. Molly loves the work of Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare. The depth of her knowledge of their work will come in handy when she sets off on her quest.
Her family, she believes, has been cursed ever since her grandfather took gold from Longcoat Bob. So after the Japanese bomb Darwin, Molly decides to set off to find Longcoat Bob and break the curse.
Molly is not alone on her quest. One of the people she is most drawn to is actress Greta Maze, who the reader first meets giving a glorious stage performance to an audience of one. Greta's lover, who is Molly's uncle, has abused her and she's finally had enough. When the town is bombed, Greta's ready to leave too. As the reader learns more of her background, the nature of Greta's quest is revealed.
In the book's second chapter, the story changes from Molly to Yukio, the child of a Japanese family that loves stories as much as making knives. The most important story involves a butterfly. That story comes full circle about two-thirds of the way through the novel. In a book filled with moving stories and imagery, it packs a wallop.
Yukio, grown to become a fighter pilot, eventually joins Molly and Greta on their quest. The novel has many passages celebrating Australia's beauty, and when the three see the natural wonders through each other's eyes, the colors become even brighter.
The quest is not without peril, but most of the dangers come from other people. Among the most dangerous is a group, a cult, that believes the world is coming to an end and that between the Nazis and the Japanese, the Western world already is ablaze. The parallels to today are striking. So is a group that recalls dangerous creatures Ulysses encountered on his way home.
Homeric is a good descriptor of the sweep of All Our Shimmering Skies. Dalton's writing displays a winsome eagerness to bring all of Australia's back country beauty to the reader. The novel also shows creative delight in bringing to life the small moments and greater scope of all that is inside Molly and her friends, as well as the light and dark that are in her greatest enemies.
This year’s Booker longlist has been announced. The titles include the latest from Nobel Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun, which I wrote about here.
READERS & BOOK LOVERS SERIES SCHEDULE