The Body in the Clouds by Ashley Hay


This 2010 book was the author's first; it was recently published in the US and reviewed in the New York Times, perhaps because of the acclaim her second novel (The Railwayman's Wife) has received. I want to rely on that review for capturing the wonder of this novel so beautifully while I record some tangential bits that I want to remember. 

Three stories are set in different centuries, all focused on Sydney. One story was based on the historical figure William Dawes who arrived with the First Fleet in 1788; he made astronomical observations, mapped the area, and recorded the language of some of the aboriginal people living in the area. The second story is about a teenager named Ted who dreams of working on the Sydney harbor bridge in the late 1920s. He gets work on the ground and is taken in by Joe Brown and his wife Joy. Joe works up on the arch and Joy loves the bridge. The 20th century character is a banker we meet in London where he has lived for 10 years. His girlfriend Caro notes he lives in London as a tourist, doesn't really know the city, and yet has never returned to Sydney for a visit. These stories are connected in various ways.

William Dawes lived separately on a point that still bears his name and is the location of the southern end of the harbor bridge. It was a teenage girl who taught him her aboriginal language. The fictional Dawes learns from her that while bones are buried in the graveyard, bodies are in the clouds and spirits are free to fly between. Later this idea is elaborated on by Dan the banker's friend Charlie who explains, "The indigenous people who were here before the British, before us I guess, they believed that you come from the clouds when you are born and that when you die, your bones stay in the ground, but your body goes back up. It was one of the first things the British learned from them when they arrived:  the bones in the ground, the body in the cloud." 

Ted Parker never worked up on the arch, but one night while Joe Brown was away, he and Joy climbed the bridge at great peril, but were transformed by the beauty of the moment. Later while both Joe and Ted are at work, the seventh man fell from the bridge, the first to survive the fall. Ted's story continues with the magical connecting of the two halves of the arch and to the completion of the bridge.

Dan Kopek, the London banker, always means to call his mother in Sydney or return for a visit with his friend from childhood, a woman  named Charlie and her grandfather. Because of World War II deaths Dan, his mother, Charlie, and Gramps became a family. He loved Gramps' stories of working on the bridge and being the one who fell from the bridge and survived. Though Dan seemed unmoored in London, he was close to Caro, his girlfriend of five years.

Charlie and Dan remember how Gramps interested them as children in exploring the city for its past:  he had them imagine the area around the bridge's big footprints, then back further when there were tents and trees when the British arrived, and then before that. Gramps told them that a stream that brought the British to the city was now buried and where they were walking now would have been in the air for the first convicts, about the level of their ears.

Watkin Tench, a historical character who arrived with the First Fleet reflects on the strange things they encounter. He would find an alligator comforting in that at least an alligator is something found somewhere else. " 'I heard one of your birds laugh at me for the entire duration of my shave this morning,' said Tench, 'And a creature that laughs is a disconcerting thing. I'm still not clear on how kangaroos might be put together and why they jump, and I don't even want to think about the size of the creatures that make those hisses out in the darkness every night.'

Reflections on the beauty of the bridge by various characters made me remember with pleasure seeing the bridge from a ferry as we went under it on the way to visit Luna Park.

Near the end of the book come revelations about just who Gramps was. This twist was foreshadowed, so it was not unexpected. 

I must stop here because apparently I am only able to ramble on incoherently about this book that gave me such great pleasure.

Ashley Hay, The Body in the Clouds, Washington Square Press, 2017, 320 pages, originally published in 2010 in Australia (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa, public library, and from Amazon.




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