Like the gorgeously lush cover, this book is almost too sumptuously overgrown with luxuriant succulents to be true. If that sounds a mouthful, you should read Dalton’s descriptions of the Australian outback.
Molly, our spunky but naive child heroine, walks away from the bombing of Darwin and I was expecting Australian desert. But she walks through many variations of the cover picture. “… a stand of black wattles and soap trees with flat round black fruits and then down an avenue of trees with mottled cream-grey bark and stiff leaves exploding with small ripe red fruits. These tree clusters are all canopied by a dense climbing vine with orange-yellow flowers shaped like starfish …” I’m wondering what to make of this dreamy psychedelic landscape and the vividness of the descriptions, which are offered in stark contrast to the city in the background. The voice is often passive: “Seen from the orange-red sky above and looking down and closer in and closer in, they are three wanderers crossing a vivid floodplain cut by sinuous rivers and wide freshwater channels dotted with lily-fringed waterholes. The sun low and honeyed.” (Love that repetition and the honeyed sun.)
It seems a strange response to trauma. Unexpected, perhaps intriguing.
The story is fantastic in every sense of the word. It feels like a legend: burnished and sculptured to fit into a sequence—sense be damned; the lovely coincidence of things falling from the sky—gifts, Molly calls them; the treasure map in a riddle which the girl can follow unerringly. The coincidences of everything coming together in such an unlikely way.
Molly is the daughter of a gravedigger, who, with his nasty brother, makes life miserable for Molly and her mother. Mum quite soon is bones in a grave, with horrible consequences, but before she dies she gives Molly a pan on which a map is etched along with an enigmatic riddle. She tells her the story of her grandfather, who brought a curse on the family for stealing gold from an aboriginal man, Longcoat Bob. Molly believes in the curse and believes all the dreadful things that happen to her will cease if she can find Longcoat Bob and persuade him to remove the curse. The last straw in her unlucky life is the Japanese invasion of Darwin. Molly sets off on her quest.
A bit like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Molly picks up some contrasting travelling companions along the way, each with their own problems. Greta Maze is a beautiful aspiring actress in a green dress. How she falls so low to end up with nasty Uncle Aubrey is not explained, but I liked her and her sharp tongue. A Japanese man falls from a plane and unfortunately behaves as a stereotyped character, as does the mystical Longcoat Bob who is spiritual and wise and one dimensional. Uncle Aubrey is a stereotypical baddie. There is an older boy, looks like a movie star, turns up at the right time. The trippy landscape is vivid in every scene.
If you read All Our Shimmering Skies as a 2020s novel, this magical fantasy stuff doesn’t fly, especially when readers come from Dalton’s gritty Boy Swallows Universe where the traumatised kid mostly has a grip on reality. Read Shimmering Skies as a fable, however, and these characters are everything they are meant to be and fall right into pattern. The “Hero’s Journey” of fables needs a call to adventure, supernatural aid, guardians of the threshold, helper, mentor, challenges and temptations, an abyss, gifts from a goddess. Da daa!
There is lyricism and beauty in Dalton’s superb writing and young Molly is a memorable character, but as a fable it should be much shorter (not more than an oral storyteller can handle) and perhaps a flag right up front that we are going into the realms of the Hero’s Journey.
A good one for a literary book club who want to discuss writing techniques and anaylse story-telling construction. Probably not so good for those, like at my club, who want to talk around the issues the book raises.