The second of my three-book ‘Sydney sojourn’, Ashley Hay’s debut novel* The Body in the Clouds is another multi-protagonist story, only this time, as opposed to Gail Jones’ Five Bells (see my review) – where the characters inhabit the same single day – here we have three protagonists who live in different times. However, the theme of interconnectedness on which Five Bells and David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (see my review) are based is still front and centre as the characters’ lives revolve around the same geography – that of Dawes Point and the Sydney Harbour Bridge – and more particularly a single event.
I came across The Body in the Clouds at the 2011 Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF). In a session entitled ‘The Fascinator’ (see my summary here), Hay, Gail Jones and Delia Falconer spoke of the sense of ‘ghosting’ that exists in Sydney and that links their three books. I experienced this same sensation after the festival when I walked up to Observatory Hill and looked back down over the finger wharves of Walsh Bay where the festival was held – and there, slipping by, was a tall ship straight from William Dawes’ 1788. Okay, so it wasn’t under sail, but I still got the same sense that I was seeing some sliver of the past slipping itself into the present. This is a very Sydney thing. No other Australian city that I have been to has it, (though I’m happy for others to correct me if they can). I lived a few years in London where history is an ever-present thing, (my office was right next to the Roman Wall, and there was a pleasant area to sit in for lunch in a sunken garden surrounded by the remnant wall). But because the past is ever-present there, and in so many other European cities, it isn’t surprising. There isn’t the sense of ‘time slippage’ thatSydney has.
So it is no surprise to me that Hay has seen the possibilities of threading together a narrative that inhabits different time periods, centring on Dawes Point, the spot where William Dawes set up his observatory in 1788 and which is now the place on which the southern end of the Harbour Bridge stands. The three protagonists are William Dawes, Ted Parker – a man who works on the construction of the Harbour Bridge, and Dan Kopek – a banker living in London who has not been back to Sydney in the ten years since he left and who returns when his de-facto grandfather falls ill.
The central idea that ties these characters together is ‘the body in the clouds’. For Dawes, who spent part of his time learning the language of the local Eora aboriginal people in first settlement, this ‘body’ is the Eora’s belief that the bones of a dead person go into the ground but the body goes into the clouds. For Ted and Dan, the body is a more literal thing: Ted witnessed the fall of the only man to fall off the harbour bridge while it was being built and survive, while ‘Gramps’ raised Dan and his own grand-daughter on the miraculous story of the day he fell from the harbour bridge and survived.
Apart from two short capstone chapters at the start and end of the novel, as well as a third in its middle, each character’s story is told in turn in their own chapters. There are many lovely linkages between the character’s stories, from the notion that they at various points see the fall of the body from the clouds, through to recurring motifs such as comets, dancing, white roses, Gulliver’s Travels, Eora words, shared dreams, and the notion of a bridge spanning the harbour. As an example, Dawes is sent out to what would become Sydney in part to observe the passing of a comet which never arrives. It does arrive, some two hundred years later, and then not over Sydney but over England. Dan sees that comet the day he met his partner, Caroline. And Ted, travelling from outside Sydney looking for work, is taken in by a man named Joe and his wife Joy, and hears stories told by Joe about Dawes’ comet seeking, and the three of them talk about shooting stars and seeing comets.
In the first chapter, only 2½ pages long, we get a feeling for the craft that Hay’s writing exhibits. She describes the men working on the bridge, how they drive in the rivets, working to a beat of time in something that approaches a dance. There is one man who “Lost his beat, lost his time…” in this aerial dance and falls. I love the way that dancing is used as a link between characters, but also how it introduces us to the notion of time slippage which allows an otherwise fantastical connection to exist between the characters. When we get into our first extended chapter, focussing on William Dawes, he muses over how determined Lieutenant Tench is on getting him to dance. Ted thinks about the dances he goes to in Sydney. And so on.
There are plenty of lovely sentences and images. Joe flicks his cigarette butt into the backyard one night [p64] and “Ted watched it rise and peak and fall, dropping down in the dark green somewhere like a lost rivet that had somehow worked itself away from its steel and followed these men home.” There is also the great image of Dawes leaving Sydney to go back to England and reeling off the names of the bays of the harbour – they are not white man’s names, they are Eora names.
There are more subtle links. At the end of one of Dan’s chapters he is thinking of darkness in the London night, and at the start of the next chapter we find Dawes in the darkness of Sydney 1788.
There are more important linkages than these, but to go into them would be spoiling the fun for those yet to read the book, suffice to say that they add a whole new dimension to the wonderful threads I’ve noted above, deepening the relationships between characters.
Underpinning the linkages is not just the theme of connection, but the idea of the stories that each of carry and make and tell that give life to who we are. Dawes hears the stories of the Eora in their language as well as the stories of settlement. Being stranded in New South Wales with no contact from the Old World for several years, the settlement is dying for stories. Living with Joe and Joy, Ted is exposed to a group of men who gather in their backyard each week for a few beers and story telling; Joy is hungry for stories of the bridge, so hungry in fact that she and Ted sneak in at night and climb the bridge’s arc when it is nearing completion. And Dan has been raised on Gramps’ story and the sharing of him with his grand-daughter, Charlie.
Stories and connections – two of the things that sustain us all, and what better metaphor for the connection of things and people than a bridge? It’s a wonderful image and metaphor; Dawes thinks of the bridge he is building between peoples; and the bridge connects Ted and Joe and Joy, as well as Dan and Charlie and Gramps. Furthermore, Charlie, a photographer, took photos of the bridge across a year and then mounted them above Dawes’ weather descriptions of those same days of the year in 1788. In some of the images there is perfect calibration of weather across the years, again highlighting the sense of the past slipping into the present.
There are perhaps some ways in which the transfer between times feels stretched, particularly when the future falls back into the past. Dawes is out on South Head and sees a great splash that might be some 100 foot high off his point in Sydney Harbour. Is he seeing things? Is he seeing the fall of a future man from a bridge yet to be built? For some reason – perhaps the size of the splash – this didn’t quite work for me. There are also one or two minor editing mishaps. For example: the Eora girl tries to pronounce Dawes’ name but trims off the ‘s’ because the Eora didn’t have ‘s’ in their language, they couldn’t pronounce it. This is great historical accuracy, but it is let down two pages later where she says “Mawn, Mr Dawes”, where the ‘s’ is spoken. But these are minor miscues in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable read.
It would be a great book club choice. It’s also a great companion to Jones’ Five Bells. There is even a wonderful sense of ghosting between both books. Jones often used the expression “here, now”, and there is one point in Hay’s novel, [p47], where Dawes is dancing with an aboriginal girl: “… she seemed to start and jump away when he stirred and reached out a hand as if to ask her to dance, here, now.”
The Body in the Clouds was shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the First Book category, as well as the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing in the 2011 NSW Premier’s Prize. It has also just been shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Prize for Fiction, where it’s up against some big competition, not least of all local WA hero Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance, but it is worthy recognition for a lyrical, multi-protagonist story set in the Dilettante’s beguiling home town, where the magical harbour is always suggesting an interplay between us all, in this time, in all times.
* Hay is the author of several non-fiction works, including, Gum: The Story of Eucalypts and Their Champions which I remember fondly. The Body in the Clouds is her first novel.
The Body in the Clouds by Ashley Hay
Allen & Unwin
Source: purchased at SWF 2011!