Published: July 24th 2013 by University of Queensland Press
Format: Paperback, 304 pages
Genres: Post Apocalyptic
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For Fin, it's just like any other day - racing for the school bus, bluffing his way through class, and trying to remain cool in front of the most sophisticated girl in his universe, Lucy. Only it's not like any other day because, on the other side of the world, nuclear missiles are being detonated.
Since I’m all for honesty, my review starts with a confession. As you may know, I don’t read blurbs when starting a book: I find they make the first 25% of a book pointless, and sometimes contain mild spoilers. This means that when I started The Sky So Heavy, I’d automatically assumed the protagonist was a girl. Since it’s told in first person, I had no evidence to the contrary. When the love interest was introduced, I was fairly excited – an apocalyptic story set in Australia featuring a homosexual couple!
It was on page 14, when the protagonist was referred to by name, that I realised my mistake! I was reading a story narrated by a male protagonist, whose name was revealed to be “Mr Findlay Heath”!
So I went back and read it again from the start, restructuring my first thoughts as I did.
OK, so that awkwardness is out of the way – let’s talk about the book!
Firstly, this is an incredible narrative. It’s obvious that a lot of thought and research has gone into the story. Everything rings true, from the effects of the nuclear disaster, to the reactions to the people in Fin’s neighbourhood, and finally (regrettably), to the attitudes of the people living in the inner City. There’s a lot in the novel, with controversial issues like how Australia treats its asylum seekers being explored in a speculative fiction setting.
The world Zorn has created is incredibly engaging, and the book is difficult to put down! The first-person narration lends a lot of emotion and I could feel Fin’s worry and desperation. He wants to keep his brother (Max) safe, he wants his friends safe, and he wants to find out where his parents are.
In addition to Fin’s 12-year-old brother, his friends Lucy and Arnold are great secondary characters. All three are well-developed, and they came across as real people instead of stereotypes of people. I like how pragmatic Lucy is, and how Noll is calm in the face of danger.
Of all the uncomfortable topics covered in the book, the focus on religion made the think the most. In a group of four people, only Noll seems to believe in a higher power, and the other three question him about his beliefs at various times. A series of interesting discussions follow, where Noll distinguishes between being ‘religious’ and being ‘Christian’ (not sure what he meant, honestly, unless it was a way to differentiate extremist views of religion?), and at one point remarks that he could handle all the bad stuff in the world because he knew he didn’t belong here, and was going somewhere else. Noll’s religious beliefs are a huge factor in his life, and so make up a huge part of his character.
On the other hand, Fin genuinely struggles with Noll’s beliefs. Firstly it’s the usual stuff about not having proof, but eventually his scepticism evolves into something else. Fin has all these silly ideas about Noll and his religion, and ends up keeping things from Noll, assuming he will either be hurt or angered. It’s one of the things that annoys me about Fin: he has very little understanding of people who aren’t like him, and it shows in his lack of people skills.
For example Fin, in all his white-boii glory, takes possession of the sole gun available to the party. He doesn’t want to tell his brother about it, to protect him, and hides it from Noll, assuming Noll would object to it. He assumes that he is the only one who can use the gun, even though Lucy saved is arse by knocking someone out with a cricket bat (more on this later), and Fin has never handled a gun before. When it comes to light that Noll knows how to use a gun, because his grandfather taught him how to use a rifle on his farm, Fin is stupidly surprised (Noll: ‘Asians can own farms!’).
Noll is fun because he breaks all the stereotypes!
Fin’s fascination into Noll’s religious beliefs stems from a need for absolution. The group doesn’t know if the guy Lucy knocked out is still alive, and Fin, in particular, needs to keep telling himself that the guy is probably alive, and that he was justified in stealing from him because he and his brother were starving. Noll’s religious beliefs don’t agree, but Noll never tries to make Fin fell guilty. He just points out that the guy wasn’t doing anything wrong, and the group technically stole what wasn’t theirs. This makes Fin upset, even angry, and although his attitude changes by the end of the book, I was still a little disappointed in his myopic view, because this is exactly the attitude that got society into this mess.
I know that this book has been compared a lot to John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began. I can see the similarities – both are about how Australia copes with a disaster and feature a group of teens that have to be resourceful and survive in harsh conditions. The differences are also worth noting: Marden’s outback setting and guerrilla style warfare contrasted with the urban setting of The Sky So Heavy and the focus on surviving the aftermath of a nuclear mishap. The things that make Marden’s books so popular are fully present in this book – the wonderful characters, impeccable world-building, and thought-provoking plot.
I know it seems like I have a lot of negative thoughts about the book, but that’s not true. It’s just that The Sky So Heavy has made me think a lot about myself, my attitude, and then Australian society and its attitudes. I was stricken by the parts of Sydney were deemed better or more worthy of support than others, even though I can see the thinking behind it.
The Sky So Heavy is not to be missed by those who enjoy Australian fiction and amazing postapocalyptic stories. I can’t wait for the next book of the series!