The Sky So Heavy is a story of disaster and survival; of human nature in a time of darkness and desperation.
In the wake of a catastrophic nuclear eve...moreThe Sky So Heavy is a story of disaster and survival; of human nature in a time of darkness and desperation.
In the wake of a catastrophic nuclear event between unnamed countries, Australia is plunged into a nuclear winter with devastating repercussions. Alone in their Blue Mountains home, brothers Fin and Max Heath struggle to cope as cold and darkness descend, sickness sets in, and food and water run scarce. As supplies dwindle, the fabric of their suburban neighbourhood begins to deteriorate into suspicion and paranoia. Seemingly abandoned by the authorities, their small community is left to face starvation and illness unaided, and hope of rescue becomes increasingly dim.
From the beginning, Zorn delivers a strong, relatable voice in Fin. There’s an immediacy to his narration, a believable edge of wryness to his tone as he describes his ‘whiter than a loaf of Tip Top’ suburb in the Blue Mountains, life with his father and step-mother, his crush on neighbour Lucy Tennington.
Throughout the novel the choices Fin makes become increasingly difficult, with complex consequences. The decisions Fin makes begin to affect him emotionally, as he attempts to reconcile how his personal system of ethics has been skewed by the disaster. The issue of survival at what cost is compounded when Fin and Max join forces with Arnold Wong and Lucy Tennington, and head towards Sydney in the hope of locating Fin’s mother. Faced with the brutal realities of the outside world, there are no simple choices.
Much of Fin’s growth as a character is directly related to his companions: Max, the brother he’s fighting to protect; and Lucy, the girl who can protect herself. But most interesting of these relationships is that between Fin and Arnold. The resident outsider at school, Arnold was bullied and Fin is complicit in this. While it would have been easy to paint the interactions between these characters as Teachable Moments, Zorn carefully avoids this by refraining from any cheesy messages or unrealistic reconciliation scenes. Rather, she presents them as interesting counterpoints to each other: Arnold with his faith and personal tragedy, Fin with his guilt and doubt. Zorn is matter of fact about the racism and prejudice of their world, without excusing or glossing over it.
The most interesting aspect of The Sky So Heavy was, for me, the clear parallels between the post-nuclear event world Zorn depicts and current issues. If you’re familiar with recent Australian politics (and let’s face it, if you live here its fairly unavoidable...) the questions raised in TSSH will have ring of familiarity:
‘It’s like those people out in the ration line complaining about people from over the border taking their share. They have to believe that we’re greedy, ‘cause the idea that we were actually left to starve is just too awful.’
“Border security” (heavy, sarcastic quotation marks) is a major subject of the novel. Inner Sydney has been divided from the outer suburbs, with those on the inside receiving a measure of relief from the fallout. Those attempting to cross the border and seek refuge within the city do so at risk of death. By placing Fin and his companions in the role of refugees, and the not-so-subtly uttered sentiment that they should “go back where they came from”, Zorn’s novel takes a shot at the present fear mongering and moral dubiousness accompanying the issues of foreign policy and asylum seeking.
The Sky So Heavy is a solid, compelling novel of survival and hope. The questions it raises are not easy, nor are the answers. While not unrelenting bleak, this is a confronting novel in it’s portrayal of a country sunk into physical and moral darkness.
You may like this if you liked:
Tomorrow When The War Began by John Marsden Ashfall by Mike Mullin Days Like This by Alison Stewart (less)
Heartbeat is a novel about a teenage girl who is grieving. Hers is a complicated grief (and really, is there even such a thing as “uncomplicated” grie...moreHeartbeat is a novel about a teenage girl who is grieving. Hers is a complicated grief (and really, is there even such a thing as “uncomplicated” grief?). Her mother is brain-dead and pregnant, being kept on life support in intensive care until such time as the baby can be delivered. So she is present, and yet not present: a state for which Emma blames her step-father, believing him to be acting against what her mother would have wanted in order to preserve the life of his son.
Emma’s grief is a consuming, powerful thing. She is angry. Hurt. Afraid. Scott’s portrayal of Emma’s grief is sharp and unflinching and honest. There is nothing neat and palatable about Emma’s emotional state. It is confronting and messy.
And some readers are incredibly uncomfortable with this.
Emma’s grief doesn’t always manifest in ways that are sympathetic. Yes, sometimes she is hostile. Sometimes she is selfish. But rather than a teenage girl struggling with intense pain, some only see an unlikeable “bitch”. Emma isn’t behaving in a way that they find palatable, therefore she is punishable.
At first, I was angry; furious on Emma’s behalf that her right to her emotions would be challenged, that she wasn’t grieving “acceptably” (which is a notion that, frankly, makes me rageful). Then I just felt sad. Scott’s exploration of grief is nuanced and authentic, yet the judgement levelled at Emma for her experience suggests that some would rather not see girls like this: hurting and angry. And I can’t help but think of those readers who might see something of themselves in Emma and her story, identify with the complexity of processing grief - who also see the clamours of “stupid”, “selfish” and “dumb” that portrayal is met with.
What’s notable about Elizabeth’s Scott’s body of work is her willingness to engage with difficult subjects, often ones met with blanket disapproval. But these things happen, Scott’s novels insist. They happen every day, to people just like us. Heartbeat – as well as Scott’s other work – addresses the fact that sometimes people do terrible, irreversible things with far reaching consequences. How does blame and guilt shape that person’s life? What does healing and forgiveness look like for a person in such a situation? Is it possible? Scott explores this in the relationship between Emma and Caleb, which is born of empathy and understanding between two people isolated by their pain. Yet their romance is not presented as some kind of fix for the characters’ respective situations, nor does it minimise the repercussions of their actions.
Heartbeat is an honest book, and as such it’s not going to be met with universal acceptance. And it should be enough for me to know that it will make its way into the hands of some readers who will identify with Emma and her emotional arc. Yet part of me still bristles when I see her criticised for not conforming to a very narrow ideal of acceptable emotional expression. I’m angry for her, and for all the teenagers who feel like her, at the idea that these feelings are somehow less valid, or should be edited for others’ comfort.
If Emma’s character is divisive then I’m stating right now that I’m firmly on her side. I want to see more of this: more honesty, more difficulty, more discomfort. Sometimes teenage girls are angry, or sad, or complicated. And that’s okay. (less)