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A mightily impressive debut
on 2 June 2008
Show Me The Sky is a mightily impressive debut.
The novel has five strands of narrative: a British policeman who has gone awol in Australia to try to trace a missing rock star; a motorcyclist dying in a dry creek in the Australian outback; an 1830s diary of a native Fijian who is returning to the Antipodes with missionaries having been converted and educated in England; a teenage runaway in England; and an unhappy rockstar.
A ever in such novels, the strands come together at the end and a coherent story appears. The danger is that this looks contrived - although if it is viewed in reverse it is a single story that has been separated into five strands. In this case, though, the novel manages to steer the course quite well. Most of the voices seem quite different - perhaps the policeman and the motorcyclist aren't obviously different, but any confusion is dispelled by Part 2. The rock star narrative seems the weakest, although it offers quite an interesting perspective - the reluctant star who sees the music as a job and would rather pursue his interests of social history and personal development. However, in the interests of creating a distinct voice, Billy K seems rather staccato and needlessly gobby for a man who is supposed to be sensitive. The rock industry world he inhabits is similarly stereotypical with its deferential journalists, inarticulate artistes, sinister executives and inane groupies.
The strength, though, is in the narratives of the motorcyclist and the historical diary. Both offer a wonderful, three dimensional portrayal of the two situations. In the case of Cal, the motorcyclist, the hopelessness of the situation is obvious, but the tone is never maudlin. The position doesn't develop much, it just deteriorates - yet it never becomes boring. Cal's fate is made clear quite early on (in another narrative) but it is still fascinating to watch it play out. Similarly, we know that Nelson Babbage, the returning Fijian, is not going to have a happy time. A black man in white man's clothes - accepted by neither his fellow travellers nor, ultimately, by his countrymen - he is a disaster waiting to happen. The cameo roles of the missionaries is played out with brilliance, particularly Rev. Thomas who has little cultural understanding but a large stage on which to play out his ignorance. Nelson's naive faith and Rev. Thomas's cynicism make for horrific contrast.
James Dent, the policeman, is well written but one is left wondering exactly why he would abandon his job to hunt for Billy K. OK, he thinks he is the only man who can find him, but it isn't obvious why this should be so. And in his work he does seem to make some amazing leaps of deduction to keep the story going. Perhaps the balance between the five strands means that the James Dent story has been simplified a little too much - but it is still engaging and does offer the story some much needed action. It's also tempting to think that the James Dent narrative holds the other strands together, but in fact they are all interdependent - a Gordian knot of themes including abandonment, determination, struggle against inevitability, and personal identity. It shows a chain of actions and consequences that spans lives and generations.
Show Me The Sky is not quite perfect, but it comes close and deserves success for such an ambitious concept. It presents no great answers, offers no shining new insights, but does intrigue and entertain. Some of the writing is understated brilliance. The ability to switch from current vernacular to the proper writings of the 1830s seems effortless. And the colours and imagery lift from the page.
I absolutely recommend this book.