Book Review – The Last Sky by Alice Nelson
Alice Nelson’s The Last Sky is the eighth winner of Western Australia’s TAG Hungerford Award. For those who don’t know, the Hungerford is a biannual award for W.A. writers who haven’t yet published a novel length work. The award is presented by none other than Tom Hungerford himself, who is well into his nineties now. Many of Tom Hungerford’s stories have been collected in the volume Straightshooter, which is made up of three earlier collections. Nelson’s novel won the award for 2006, which was actually awarded in Feb 2007, and the book was released in August 2008. No wonder, then, that the cover says ‘Winner of the TAG Hungerford Award’ rather than ‘Winner of the TAG Hungerford Award 2006.’ But I digress. The Last Sky is an effective mood piece of a novel, reminiscent of the works of earlier TAG Hungerford Award winning writers Gail Jones and Simone Lazaroo. Nelson rather impressively carves out her own space in this literary constellation, as this review will attempt to describe.
The cast of The Last Sky is fairly small. Maya Wise is the viewpoint character, although Nelson certainly blurs the boundaries between the perspectives of different characters. She is unhappily married to an archaeologist named Joseph. During the course of her time in Hong Kong shortly before the ‘Handover’ to Chinese rule, Maya meets Ken Tiger and Clarissa. Joseph is the protege of a famous archaeologist named Aurel Stein, whose name certainly rang a bell. My own interest in Chinese history has led to have a vague idea that Aurel Stein was an explorer of the Silk Road region in the early twentieth century. It turns out that the real Aurel Stein died in 1943, at age eighty. Nelson seems to have sent Stein a few decades into his future for the purpose of this novel. Through Ken Tiger, Maya learns about the lives of Ada Lang and Victor Kadoorie. We are also introduced to Maya and Joseph’s respective families through Maya’s ‘flights of fancy’ embellished from shreds of information. It’s hard to say who the main characters of this novel truly are, or what time period the book is mostly set in. Nelson’s technique is slippery and elusive, and for the most part well realised.
The Last Sky doesn’t have a plot, at least very little of one that is occurring in Maya Wise’s present. I could probably summarise the main events in a short paragraph, and it probably wouldn’t seem very impressive, but to do so would be to misunderstand The Last Sky’s subtle art. Rather there are events being remembered (or imagined) in various times, interwoven and interlocking. It’s the kind of thing I suspect would turn a fair few readers off, but I found the technique to be interesting enough. Maya’s life seems to consist of real and imagined wanderings around Hong Kong, as well as her recollections of various events in her own past. The only forward movement in time that I can discern relates to the drawing closer of the actual ‘Handover’ date, with which the novel ends.
One of Maya’s problems is that she feels no real affinity with the Chinese around her. Fairly early on she confesses to this and it causes her to feel alienated from Hong Kong society. For me this was a slight disappointment, as it meant that the narrative lacked the insider dimension that makes Simone Lazaroo’s The World Waiting to be Made so exquisite. Her husband Joseph is even less tolerant of the Chinese, whom he sees as barbarians unappreciative of his works of excavation and scholarship. Maya becomes increasingly ambivalent about Joseph’s charms (or lack thereof) and as such I found him to be an unlikeable character. Maya doesn’t have much more luck with the Chinese than her husband:
“Sometimes I think that these people [the Chinese] will always be inaccessible to me. Once I told Joseph that I thought they deliberately conspired to fulfil all the western cliches about them, about their inscrutability.” (p. 127)
But Nelson’s novel is not so much about this sense of dislocation as about her imagined flights into the lives of Ken Tiger, his lover Ada, and her husband Victor Kadoorie. Maya says it best herself, neatly summarising this novel’s methodology:
“Yes, that’s the place I’d like to be. In the landscape of someone else’s past, between the closed pages of the history book.” (p. 153)
This technique is by its very nature elusive and tangential, and thus the narrative does not so much progress as unfold. Late in the story, Maya rues the fact that:
“I have clung too tightly to a world that is not my own. Ken Tiger and Ada and Victor and Clarissa and Joseph. I have spent all these months here trying to pin them down. Have I become only a prism that refracts their stories, their lives?” (p. 228)
The Last Sky is easy to read, but difficult to review. The various strands fall together neatly and yet seem insubstantial when analysed in isolation. I read this over the course of something less than four hours, in two sessions over the course of one day. This serves as a testament to this novel’s readability, for readers of this blog will know that I often abandon novels mid-course. I found the impact of the novel to build to something like a crescendo toward the end, which is of course a good thing.
On the subject of presentation, Fremantle Press have done a good job of presenting what must have been quite a short manuscript (not more than 60,000 words, I wouldn’t have thought) in such a way as to make the novel appear longer than it is. Generous margins and ample use of white space bulks this up to 250 pages, but the pages themselves breeze by. This is clever work by the publisher, who would no doubt have been mindful of the fact that the manuscript was a little on the short side for today’s market.
This is a work of not insignificant promise. Nelson shows glimpses of an ability to produce imagery as dense and as vivid as Gail Jones. Similarly, The Last Sky tantalizes the reader with visions of an exotic Eastern landscape more fully explored in the work of Simone Lazaroo. In time, Nelson may equal those luminaries on both counts.