Friday, March 15, 2013

The Lightning Field by Heather Jessup

All stories are about redemption. This is my new theory based on the books I've been reading for this project (the blog, that is). This novel has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it phoenix leitmotif, including a protagonist who is quite literally struck by lightning and rises harder and (arguably?) stronger from the ashes. It is masterfully crafted.

For the first part of the book I was worried that it would be another second-wave-style exploration of white housewives' boredom in the suburbs post-war, much like The Torontonians. I honestly don't think I can stomach another such story - not because it's not a valid thing to write about, just because it doesn't interest me personally and I feel so removed from that narrative. But two things made The Lightning Field different: the housewife, Lucy, is struck by lightning while pregnant with her youngest child; and her husband, Peter, works as an engineer/draftsman on the Avro Arrow, the groundbreaking and famously doomed Canadian aeronautics project, cancelled by Diefenbaker's Conservative government in 1959.

I didn't know much about the Arrow and the novel definitely paints a clear picture of the impact of the layoffs of over 14,000 people working on the project, including many top scientists and engineers who were quickly recruited by American companies - instant brain drain! The loss of his job changes Peter, just as the lightning strike changes Lucy, and the novel watches those changes ripple through the lives of their friends and children.

Guys, this book is gorgeous. It is SO beautifully written, the characters are well-drawn and very sympathetic - even Peter, who is kind of an asshole. It is a complex snapshot of a certain time in Toronto's history, and of coming of age in that time. Jessup creates a world that has many unseen but intriguing components; I would read a novel about what happens to Lucy's estranged best friend Claire in those missing years, or about the lives of any of Lucy's children. The author avoids one of the common pitfalls of first novels - putting everything you know into it - and manages to create curious little pockets of unseen action. She also creates sneaky metaphors that catch you by surprise; my breath literally caught in my throat reading the conversation between Lucy and her co-survivors of lightning strikes at a conference, as they explain to her that she is lucky to have scars because people will believe what happened to her. (It's about rape, right? Yeah, I got it). Or flight - Peter's work of course, and his first flight as his daughter is born, and how the boys' dreams for themselves are so closely tied to flight.

There are so many excellent themes touched on: death of course; redemption; love; fate; all the big ones. I loved the dinner scene near the end, with the children huddled under the table passing around a bottle of wine. I loved Lucy, with all her flaws and her strength and how completely she encompasses the feeling of being an adult and not knowing what the hell you're supposed to do. She is one of my favourite characters that I've read about for this project.

I cry at everything that's meant to make me cry, it's true; but it takes a gifted writer to make me cry about weird shit like the Avro Arrow getting cancelled. Heather Jessup is a gifted writer, and definitely someone I will read again.

Five CN Towers out of five.

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