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Posts Tagged ‘The Body in the Clouds’

Saturday was wall-to-wall sessions, so apologies for some tardiness on my part, but there’s much to reflect on…

There was no better way to start my marathon Saturday than to sit with Kate Grenville and Ashley Hay to hear Grenville talk about her three colonial era books, The Secret River (see my review), The Lieutenant (see my review), and Sarah Thornhill (which had won the Australian Book Industry Awards gong for General Fiction book of the year on Friday night – my review forthcoming).  Regular readers will know I’m a fan of Grenville’s colonial stories.  Michael Heyward described The Secret River as one of Australia’s most important books in Friday’s ‘Classic’ discussion, which I think, (even given his bias as head of Text Publishing), is spot on.

Hay was a fine choice to conduct the session as she had her own love affair with Dawes – the man Grenville’s Lieutenant Rooke is based on – in her book The Body in the Clouds (see my review).  She asked Kate about landscape in her works.  Grenville said that imagination can work from very little.  The Hawkesbury is similar to the way it would have been at first settlement although the land management practices of the local indigenous population would have seen some differences.  One might have to work a little harder at Dawes Point, where the southern pylons of the harbour bridge now stand.  But even here there are some small footings of Dawes’ original observatory – and ‘you only have to squint and see the water and sky’ … to which Hay suggested she’d have to squint very hard!  But ‘the logic of the landscape is still there’ and the positioning of the observatory so far from the settlement (about a mile), told her much about the character of Dawes.  In this way, any place can tell you things as a writer.  Much of Sarah Thornhill is set in an area near Cessnock in NSW’s Hunter Valley, and she told us how she had driven around the valley’s vineyards trying to find a place that didn’t have vines growing over it so she could start to see this landscape as it would have been.  Ironically, she later described her visit to post Cyclone-Tracy Darwin – in which the world was utterly destroyed with houses turned upside down and cars up trees.  She felt numbness, a ‘limit of mind’, was blind without experience, and couldn’t find the words to describe what she was seeing.  (Me thinks she didn’t squint hard enough!)  But this yearning for making the strange familiar is what the colonial settlers were preoccupied by, choosing names after places from home (New South Wales for instance).

Somehow I’d managed to go for two days at a writers’ festival and not hear a reading!  So it was nice to finally hear a short reading from the start of Sarah Thornhill.  Grenville then relayed a lovely anecdote which I seem to have heard before, about how the voice of illiterate Sarah came to her – a voice that she described as: plain; strong; and being illiterate meant no large words.  She was hiking up a volcano in Auckland and for once did not have her notebook with her, just a pen and the paper bag her lunch came in.  The voice just came to her (cue much laughter about religious experience!) and she wrote the synopsis of the novel and a draft of those first few lines on the paper bag.  She brought that paper bag to show us (soon going into the National Library suggested Hay!) and read those drafted lines.  It was a fabulous thing to see the document on which the genesis (if you’ll excuse the pun) of a novel came into being.  Those first few lines, while a little different in the published work, survived pretty much intact over the – and I think I heard this right, though my ears didn’t believe it so I might have misheard – the 20-30(!) drafts she had to do.

The motivations for the two Thornhill books were discussed.  ‘Hidden things become toxic’ and shape behaviour down the generations.  These secrets must be brought up the surface and confronted before we can move on.  What happens when the secret comes out?  That was the question she sought to answer in Sarah Thornhill.  She explained the family history connections again, which have been well explored in other interviews, describing her interest as something that kept circling this family of stories, ‘like a moon around a planet’.  Not surprising, then, to hear her say she doesn’t think she’s finished with this world yet.

The discussion then moved to the decisions about the divide between black and white.  Thornhill made one choice, Dawes made another.  There was a sense of yin and yang about The Secret River and The Lieutenant.  When asked by an audience member whether women have a better chance of building bridges, Grenville said possibly, though Dawes did pretty well, even though he needed the native girl to come at least as far from the other direction.  She was asked about indigenous Point of View (POV), as she had written an indigenous character in one of her earlier novels, and much like Thomas Keneally (who had done the same in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), would not write from an indigenous POV today.  Part of the reason was that she believed it wrong, another that there are fine indigenous authors such as Kim Scott (That Deadman Dance – see my review), and Alexis Wright (Carpentaria – my review).  (I know this is a sensitive topic and I agree that the indigenous authors we have now can write these stories so, so well, but I find it strange at a more general level that any author should restrict themselves in writing from the POV of another ethnicity because it’s ‘wrong’.  Authors constantly write their way into other ethnicities or socio-economic groups or cultures or histories.  How did Keneally imagine his way into the minds of Jews and Germans for Schindler’s Ark, for instance?  But I digress…)

So why historical fiction?  Grenville said she wasn’t interested in the past per se, more so in the present.  But every book is a coin in the currency of understanding our past, each is necessary and part of a larger conversation.  ‘Fiction and history need to walk hand-in-hand’, a nice riposte to all the brouhaha over the ‘history wars’ that followed publication of The Secret River.

She made a comment which I’ve heard a few times over the course of the last three days, which was that writers ‘create moments of spongy potential’, and that each reader re-creates that book in their own minds based on the person they are.  In this way books become very personal things.

She also commented that the literary establishment needs to be more flexible on the question of genre.  I found this last point interesting, considering Sarah Thornhill seemed to be marketed as ‘woman’s fiction’ – a term I loathe, but one that was echoed by a panellist in a different session I went to, who said she thought the cover of ST looked like a romance.  Why is it that ST put forward for the ‘general’ category at the ABIA?  Why was it marketed thus?  Well, perhaps the new cover for Sarah Thornhill, on the left here, will redress this somewhat.  It’s much more in keeping with the others in this colonial ‘sequence’, don’t you think?

One of the interesting aspects of writers’ festivals is that authors explain their approach to writing.  Grenville described hers as ‘shambolic’!, saying she usually writes 60-70K worth of ‘fragments’ before she sits down to see what she has and makes decisions on structure and plot.  She said it was ‘inefficient’ but worked for her.  What it does mean is there’s a lot left over after she cuts out the fragments that don’t belong.  Many of these have become short-stories, or ‘tributaries’ of the main river of story.  Out of The Secret River came four or five short stories, which I’ll have to find and read at some point, as well as a couple from The Lieutenant, and others.  There was a suggestion from an audience member to roll them into a collection.  Grenville seemed to feel that they didn’t want to fit together like that, but she left the door open.

Finally, the common thread that runs through her work?  ‘Deconstructing stereotypes’, which I though was a lovely way of describing her oeuvre, and as good an end to this muse as I can muster.

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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

2011

ISBN: 9781742372426

305 pages

Source: purchased at SWF 2011!

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