Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 5, 2013

The Body in the Clouds, by Ashley Hay

The Body in the CloudsAs I wrote when I posted a Sensational Snippet from this exquisite novel,  Ashley Hay has a new book called The Railwayman’s Wife just out, but I’ve been reading her debut novel, The Body in the Clouds (2010).

It was a notable debut, and it signalled that Ashley Hay is a writer to watch.  The Body in the Clouds was shortlisted internationally and in the NSW and WA Premier’s Awards, and now that I’ve read it, I don’t understand why it wasn’t nominated for the Miles Franklin.  There were some great books longlisted in 2010 but The Body in the Clouds is an infinitely more significant work of literature than the dreary crime novel that won it.

The novel is shaped around a moment in time when a man working on the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the 1930s fell into the water – and survived.  The blurb tells us that three men ‘see it’:

  • the astronomer William Dawes, in 1787 in the fledgling colony of New South Wales,
  • a bridge-worker, Ted Parker, and
  • an expat banker, Dan Kopek, returning to Sydney from the UK in the 21st century.

The story is skilfully constructed in 3rd-person narrative from the perspectives of these three men.  The chapters alternate in threes, so that the reader pieces together a jigsaw of coincidences, culminating in a chapter where these elements come together.  In the ensuing chapters a mystery begins to reveal itself because Dan emerges from a fog of dreams and jetlag to the realisation that some of the stories he’s been told since childhood don’t fit together.  This is a novel about the power of story, about how events are transformed and made significant by story-telling, and how naming things can make them real.

But first and foremost, The Body in the Clouds is a compelling narrative.  The book begins with The Fall, the fall from the iconic bridge before its two halves met,   Seven men had fallen from the bridge before, and all had died.  But this eighth man falling is transformed into a man flying – by the power of story, from the newspaper story quoting flowery language no bridge-worker would ever use, to the awed stories of those who witnessed the event.  It becomes a story passed on through the generations, and becomes something more.

Someone was falling: someone was falling off the bridge.  A mess of movement at the top as his arms flailed, as his body made a desperate, awkward half-somersault.  Then a stiffening as the body set itself in a straight line, head through to pointing toes, and the line dropped down to meet the blue.  The surface broke, and […] he could see the body moving, still moving down in the deep, as if there was a light following it, illuminating it somehow. (p. 179)

The bridge-workers also find the stories of Sydney’s past.  They had excavated deep below the ground to lay the cables that support the bridge, and had found the brickwork for Sydney Cove’s first observatory, manned by Lieutenant William Dawes.  They found the keystone, dated 1789.  From the scanty extant evidence of the Dawes’ papers, the author reimagines  the fragile world of the colony, a hesitant and insubstantial settlement that for much of the first four desperate years seemed doomed to fail.  It is not until Dawes learns enough of the local language from a young Aboriginal girl called Patyegarang to discover that they have named not just the accoutrements of the settlement, but also the settlers themselves as Be-re-wal-gal, that he begins to feel a small sense of permanence and a glimmer of hope in the settlement’s future.

Dawes in this novel is a brilliant creation, one which reminded me of Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant published in the same year. (See my review). Grenville’s novel, however, renames the protagonists and is focussed on Rookes’ (Dawes)  relationship with Tagaran (Patyegarang) and on his moral dilemma when he is asked to join a punitive expedition against the Aborigines.  Hay’s novel is less driven by the historical record and Dawes’ part in her story enables her to reimagine the dying crops and tentative structures set amid the pristine harbour, the cove, and the stars in the sky.  She vividly evokes the period of near starvation when the relief ships do not come and the settlement is so perilously close to vanishing into the bush like a dream.  Dawes is a more imaginative man in Hay’s novel, more vulnerable to danger, more disposed to visions of what might be.

Dan, floundering in his London relationship with Caro because he seems unable to decide where he belongs, has strange dreams on the flight back to Sydney.  His relationships are complex: he had no family other than his mother, but a ‘family’ is formed when he grows up alongside Charlie, a motherless daughter brought up by Gramps.  They think of themselves as brother and sister, but Caro suspects there might be more to it than sibling affection.  It is Gramps’ stories of the bridge and the falling/flying man that have provided a shared family history; it is his stories that test everyone’s relationships.

Ideas about time and space are tested too.  Dawes is beset by uncertainties: he looks out nightly for the comet that should arrive but doesn’t, and he has three conflicting calculations locating the settlement – so even though he isn’t lost because the paths and the shape of the settlement below him are as familiar now as the new patterns of the stars in the southern sky – he doesn’t actually know where it is.  Ted is haunted by scraps of visual memory, blinking into the sunlight, dazzled by the blue of the harbour waters, never certain about what he saw.  And Dan, torn between his life in London and his feelings about Sydney as home, thinks:

Everyone pretended the world was shrivelled to the size of a pea with planes and phones and emails and the rest of it, but you still had to choose if you were going to be here or there. […] No, he needed the eighteenth century, when time and space were different things and people accepted distances, delays.   (p.195)

This is a beautiful book, written in exquisite prose and rich with allusions to the floating island in Gulliver’s Travels and the myth of Icarus.

Hay has created a spell-binding story that will change the way you think about that iconic bridge.

I can’t wait to read The Railwayman’s Wife!

PS Do visit Musings of a Literary Dilettante to see John Boland’s thoughts – he was lucky enough to hear Ashley Hay talk about this book at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Author: Ashley Hay
Title: The Body in the Clouds
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2010
ISBN: 9781742372426
Source: Kingston Library

Availability

Fishpond: The Body in the Clouds


Responses

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Lisa. I really loved this book. I think I might have to re-read it now, though, like you, I’m keen to read her latest first! John

    • Isn’t it wonderful when you discover a new author to love!

  2. After reading your rave review I rushed straight out and grabbed this book, Lisa. I’ve just finished reading it – fantastic. Thanks so much for directing me to it. The nerd and writer in me got a little bonus at the end, too – great resources listed in the acknowledgements, including Dawes’s journals online. The Railwayman’s Wife will definitely go on the teetering to-read pile.

    • Hi Tracy, I’m so glad you agree, it’s a wonderful book.
      I hope sales of Lena Gaunt are going well?
      Lisa

      • I hope so too! I await my first royalty statement before I can answer that question.

        • *Fingers crossed*!

  3. This does sound good, Lisa. Shame it’s not available in the UK. I’m loathe to have one shipped all the way from Oz, but perhaps if the Railwayman’s Wife does well here they may reissue her debut.

    • What do you think of the cover of this one, by comparison? I agree about the one on TRW – I suspected it of being *shudder* A Women’s Weekly Great Read until friends I trust started raving about it.


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