Molly Hook, the gravedigger’s daughter, has a heart on the verge of turning to stone. When her mother dies she is left to fend for herself against her apathetic father and his abusive, grave-robbing brother, Aubrey. Driven by hope, and a belief in the magical gifts of the night sky, Molly sets out on a quest for answers, gold and a cure to the curse that has plagued her family for decades.
All Our Shimmering Skies has a great deal in common with Dalton’s record-breaking debut, Boy Swallows Universe, which has sold more than 500,000 copies in Australia since its release in 2018. Both novels feature children who view the world with a kind of naive optimism, and whose lives are shaped by intergenerational trauma as well as damaged and complicated adults. Both deal with themes of good and evil, hope and happy endings; and both invite the reader to believe in miracles. But while both books contain elements of magical realism, Boy Swallows Universe presents its fables as a sort of (sub)urban legend, where All Our Shimmering Skies lets them drift.
Like Dalton’s breakout, somewhat-autobiographical protagonist in Boy Swallows Universe, Molly Hook fixates on the notion of good and bad. She wants to see the good in people, but is on the precipice of understanding that the adults in her life might not be so easily categorised. As her world-weary travel companion, Greta, tells her, “There’s only people, Molly. There are good ones and there are bad ones and then there’s all of us nuts stuck in the middle.” Through Molly, Dalton offers a view of humanity that is at once heartbreaking and hopeful. Although she is repeatedly betrayed – particularly by her father and uncle – Molly holds firm in her belief that people can be good.
For the cynical reader, Dalton’s eternal optimism can be over the top and unbelievable. But many will enjoy his writing’s undeniably and unapologetically hopeful take on characters whose lives have very little hope at hand. The characters in All Our Shimmering Skies, like those in Boy Swallows Universe, are larger than life, detailed to the point of caricature. Greta is a 1940s manic pixie dream girl, and Molly’s hero, Sam, is likened to the gun-slinging cowboys from her favourite spaghetti westerns.
But while the characters in his debut are grounded by the gritty realities of class, the present-day setting of the novel and Dalton’s own experience, in All Our Shimmering Skies many are just out of reach.
Longcoat Bob, the Aboriginal elder responsible (according to legend) for Molly’s family curse, and Yukio Miki, a Japanese fighter pilot who falls into the narrative from the sky, both play a version of the magical “other” – a trope made popular in film and television narratives where a character (typically black) brings a deep spiritual wisdom to the lives of the white protagonists but is otherwise lacking in agency. Their otherness is amplified by the book’s setting: Darwin in 1942 provides a backdrop of war, segregation and a spattering of casual racism that is challenging (although not unrealistic) to read. Although their role in the novel is part of its magic, the oversimplification of these characters is unfortunate and, given the ongoing dialogue around race and representation, surprising.
Dalton’s insights are best when he writes about class and the damage done by toxic masculinity. Molly is believably isolated in the world because she comes from the kind of family the world prefers not to see: poor, mentally ill and suffering various addictions. Aubrey and Horace Hook are written with generous insights into their own abusive upbringing, without excusing their behaviour or the myriad ways they have failed Greta, Molly and her mother. With surprising nuance, Dalton explores the reasons that men inherit patterns of abuse at the same time as he punishes abusers and rewards his male characters who disrupt these behaviours.
Perhaps the great appeal of Dalton’s writing is his tendency, like Eli, to write in flowers and flourishes and to bring characters whose lives might otherwise be small to life in vivid, extraordinary (sometimes unbelievable) detail.
• All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton is out now through Harper Collins