Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 3, 2013

Sensational Snippets: The Body in the Clouds (2010), by Ashley Hay

The Body in the CloudsEverybody’s talking about Ashley’s Hay’s new novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, but I’ve been reading her debut novel, The Body in the Clouds (2010).

Ashley Hay made a big splash with this book.  It was

In this Sensational Snippet, William Dawes, in those perilous days in 1788 when the fledgling colony at Sydney Cove was starving, has met up with the Surgeon John White on the path between the observatory and the settlement.  They make a sardonic joke, and the ‘king’s fisher’ (a kookaburra) joins in their laughter:

Those birds always sounded to Dawes as if they were working their way through vowels, performing a series of exercises before singing, perhaps, or mounting a play in a hall with bad acoustics – their series of long aas, and short oos, and the hammering e-e-es. He found his own mouth following the shape of their calls and considering which other letters he’d need from his own alphabet to transcribe them precisely.  Another thing for his records.
The bird reached the stanza that was almost pure gurgle and stopped suddenly, ruffling its feathers and tilting its head to one side.  Another pause, another shake, and it was in the air, its wings beating it up higher and higher into the sky, and then stretching as it glided out across the water.
‘ “For how long shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” ‘ murmured the surgeon.  ‘I’m on the psalms again, God help me,’ he said briskly. ‘One a night, but don’t tell the vicar – he takes it as a sign of more religion when it’s really a sign of nothing else to read.’  He tipped a salute towards the bird and watched it as it soared and climbed, dipping to begin a huge sweeping curve.  Around it came, its body solid against the light of the sky like a mark on a musical score and then thinning down – lighter, lighter, lighter – as it turned, until it disappeared altogether for a moment, invisible against the blue.
‘That, that,’ said John White.  ‘I remember the first time I saw that happen when I was a boy.  I thought it was magic.’
‘It was a pale seabird out over the water at Portsmouth,’ said Dawes.  ‘I watched it disappear and I thought my father had made it happen somehow, like a trick.’ The light and movement of an illusion.
The beat of a wing, and the bird was dark again against the air.

The surgeon goes on his way, but Dawes stays where he is:

Dawes watched as the king’s fisher looped up towards the clouds, and around – visible, invisible, visible, invisible.  How fast would a man have to move, and in what sort of light, what sort of space, to manage a moment of disappearance?  Here they were, collecting all sorts of information about samphire and spiders, about wind and weather, when maybe they were in the time and space for questions like this.

Dawes doesn’t know it, but he’s anticipating a moment when a man falls from the Sydney Harbour Bridge…

The Body in the Clouds, by Ashley Hay, Allen and Unwin, 2010, page 98


  1. I read The Railwayman’s Wife last month and loved it so much that I want to read everything that Ashely Hay has ever written. She creates gorgeous but very realistic characters and tells a story beautifully. I like the sound of this one too…


    • It’s a terrific book, don’t wait for my review, you’ll love it, I know you will.


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