Nicholas Hogg’s assured debut novel is not so much about the destination of its characters as it is about their journeys. Although this seems like the most facile of clichés, it is also the thread that ties four overlapping but powerfully distinct experiences together. Physical and spiritual odysseys, unfalteringly portrayed, take on a more touching significance as the ostensibly central plot – a detective chasing a runaway rock star – fades into place, as if a camera is pulling back from a small detail in the corner of a frame to reveal an entire picture. Indeed, Hogg’s care in plotting the parallel lines of each (equally important) protagonist far outstrips each ending, which are all satisfyingly reconciled but almost anti-climatic. This is not necessarily a criticism of Show Me the Sky; the beginning and end are just convenient points that measure the extraordinary and exciting distances that need to be travelled to find an autonomous self in a clamouring world.
The book begins with the voice of James Dent, a police detective whose job it is to find Billy K, ‘the singer who vanished into thin air on a Cornish clifftop’. Within a matter of paragraphs it becomes obvious that Dent has left the official investigation of Billy K’s disappearance and is working under his own steam, directly disobeying the orders of his superiors. Travelling incognito, cut off from his bank balance, his ordinary modes of contact, his new lover, and his beloved but rarely-seen young daughter, Dent vanishes as convincingly as Billy into the Australian urban sprawl and vast deserts in order to flush the missing rock star out. It is also obvious that James Dent is every bit as attractive and mysterious a character as Billy K–their pasts are unclear but both hold hints of violence, blood, cold weather and desperate teenage escapes.
We learn about Billy K through interviews with him, through transcriptions of his recorded conversations and through retrospectives by the media, but never from Billy himself. He remains a mythologized character and the emergence of his self, as he might have seen it, is central to the book. Billy’s deserted car held a copy of Show Me the Sky, a recently discovered manuscript that has been restored and reprinted for the mass market. The manuscript itself was found by a motorcyclist, who crashed in the Australian outback some time before Billy’s disappearance and was forced to wait for help with a shattered leg. He used the time to write a long letter to his girlfriend, the text of which forms another link of the narrative. The last page of Billy’s copy of Show Me the Sky is missing. The singer has been sighted all over the world by people very varied in sanity, but James Dent firmly believes that Billy’s actual whereabouts are tied closely to the contents of the book.
Intertwining with Dent’s narrative is the text from the diary of Nelson Babbage, a freed slave in 1830s England, who is travelling by boat to his native Fiji with the missionary group planning to bring ‘civilisation’ to the ‘barbarians’. Nelson Babbage, who considers himself bereft of a culture, is conflicted between the values of what he sees as the savage but innocent Fiji and the apparently contradictory values of the white men, who teeter between Christian kindness and colonialism. In addition to recording the dangerous sea voyage and the fraught work of the mission in Fiji, Babbage attempts to confront this conflict in his diary, echoing the book’s primary theme of searching for a place to belong to, a self that rings true.
Hogg proves his mettle as a novelist with these strongly distinguishable voices, from Nelson Babbage’s deliberate, awkwardly correct Victorian English to the runaway motorcyclist’s delirious passion. Offsetting their apparent isolation from each other, the four central characters have in common a background they have broken from and a living situation made complex by the repercussions of this break. The separated pieces of the novel fall together in a surprising mosaic: impressive, distinctive and warm.