Friday, 10 April 2009

Show Me the Sky - Nicholas Hogg

Read: March 2008

“When you run from somewhere you never really leave. People hold us like ghosts in their memories. We hold people like ghosts in our memories. We’re forever haunting or being haunted.”

A rock god has gone missing, disappeared at the height of his fame with just his guitar and the first page of Show Me The Sky a recently discovered historical memoir found by a dying motorcyclist in the Australian Outback. And now the man investigating his disappearance has decided to disappear as well, figuring the only way to catch a missing person is to go missing yourself. So as James Dent, himself a teenage runaway, goes undercover in search of Billy K, his dangerous journey takes him from the Australian outback to Mombasa brothels and finally closer to home than anyone could ever have predicted.

Through a series of interlocking narratives Hogg analyses the concept of ‘missing,’ of running away from life and history and yourself. We read newspaper articles, police reports and unpublished evidence on Billy K’s mysterious disappearance and then follow James Dent as he tries to track him down. Then we join a nameless, fateless, injured motorcyclist writing a dying letter to his girlfriend from the middle of the outback. As his dehydration grows, so the scope of his vision does too, and soon his hallucinations may present a solution to the entire mystery Dent is searching for. The only problem is that the letter has gone missing.

Then we join the book Billy K was reading, Show Me The Sky, the 1835 journal of a Fijian Englishman sailing back to his homeland where he hopes to bring the word of God to his people. Dislocated, neither Fijian nor English, his is a story of belonging, of racism and empire building and the clash between native Pacific island tribes and the European travellers looking to convert them.

Finally we travel with Jimmy, a teenage runaway as he escapes his step fathers cruelty and his own violence.

If this sounds confusing it is not. The five plots each have their own voice and gradually draw together, each becoming a part of the others, another example of someone going missing, becoming lost and disappearing. It is a good story, very readable, intriguing and with a missing rock star it promises a mystery which will take us across oceans and time to look at something universal - the desire to go missing. Reminiscent of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas crossed with something by Michael Connelly, it is a fast paced and diverse thriller which you keep reading eagerly, craving the next big discovery.

Hogg is economical with language, his prose is readable and engrossing and he has written an enjoyable book. It begins incredibly well, instantly readable, and intriguing. Within the first fifty pages Hogg makes a dramatic revelation only to pose more complex mysteries, to further cloud the already murky links between the five narrators. And you have the notion that this is how the book will continue, revelation after revelation slowly illuminating the five narratives, drawing each of the stories together, the plot unravelling like a tightly wound ball of string. And I was sure it was going to be a really great book.

But somewhere in the middle it begins to go off the boil. The revelations begin to dry up, or are increasingly obvious, and the dramatic events that the beginning has promised fail to materialise. And structurally, the book begins to disintegrate under the weight of its own self importance. There is a great problem with writers trying to fictionalise music, to describe melodies and write lyrics for great songs which the reader cannot hear. Salman Rushdie had that problem in The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Nicholas Hogg has it here. It is very difficult to read people waxing lyrical about the beauty and power of a music which you will never be able to hear. It is ultimately very frustrating. And on top of that there is something slightly arrogant about a writer trying to write amazing lyrics and even though Hogg does well here, I could never get out of my head the self importance it must take to do this.

“On this night of dying light,
your shadow on the floor like a stain
or ghost,
the book face down and streaming words,
I watch you strip
See the universe blaze on skin,
come home.”

It is not that the lyrics are bad, I quite like them, but its all a little self aggrandising. And they aren’t lyrics. They’re poetry which is a completely different lyrical structure.

And although the other plots fit together, I could not silence the sense that all was not as it seemed. It seems that events happen too quickly to be possible in their timeline, and the fifth narration adds little to the novel other than the quote above. And as the links between the narratives come together they begin to seem a little contrived.

Perhaps this is nitpicking, but it was going through my head as I read the book and these problems only increased with the turning of each page. It is not a bad book and if you do not analyse it too much it is an enjoyable read. It is just a shame that after such a promising beginning the great novel I thought I was going to read did not materialise. James Hogg has a way with prose which offers the potential for great things, keep an eye on him, and if you are looking for an enticing book which you can pick up and read anywhere any time, then this might be the perfect book for you.

5 out of 10

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