Review published on July 12, 2018.
This is a beautifully written debut novel about survival in situations of extreme isolation. Seventy-eight-year-old Augustine Lofthouse is the last researcher standing at the Barbeau Observatory in the Canadian Arctic Circle. Although we never learn precisely what, we know that something catastrophic has been happening in the wider world that caused the research centre to be evacuated. Augie refused to leave, so now he is alone in this dystopian setting with Iris, a mysterious eight-year-old child. They are completely out of contact with the rest of mankind. The only other inhabitants of the bleak but gorgeous landscape are polar bears, wolves and musk oxen. You can’t beat Lily Brooks-Dalton’s nature descriptions:
“The rosy glow spilled over the horizon and seeped into the icy blue of the tundra, casting indigo shadows across the snow. The dawn climbed like a wall of hungry fire, delicate pink deepening to orange, then crimson, consuming the thick layers of cloud one at a time until the entire sky was burning.”
When Augie falls ill with a fever, he journeys back into his memory, remembering his violent father and mentally ill mother; his world travels and obsessive astronomical research; and the daughter he never got to know.
In alternating chapters we meet the crew of the Aether spacecraft, which has been exploring Jupiter’s surroundings. They have recently lost contact with Earth, and they ponder possible reasons for the blackout: Nuclear war? An asteroid? An epidemic? Sullivan, a Canadian communications specialist, left her nine-year-old daughter, Lucy, behind to undertake this once-in-a-lifetime mission. Despite time spent trying for normal life in the “Little Earth” gravity zone, Sully and the rest of this multicultural crew – Commander Gordon Harper plus Devi, Thebes, Tal and Ivanov – are starting to retreat into anger and depression. “The faith that there was someone left to answer her kept smoldering” for Sully, though, and as the spacecraft gets closer to returning to Earth, she persists in her attempts to make contact.
The two storylines have a fair bit in common. Both Augie and Sully live in situations of uncertainty and danger, but they are surrounded by all the grandeur of the Earth and space. The flashbacks to their earlier lives made me feel that I truly knew these characters and understood their sorrows and their motivations (“even the fleeting things were worth their weight in sadness”). As one generally expects of a novel with parallel stories, the two strands do meet up at a certain point. In this case, although the connection is satisfying, it proved too far-fetched for me.
Still, that doesn’t detract too much from a book that’s perfectly suited to readers of Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař, Cold Earth by Sarah Moss, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. My lingering question – why this shares a title with a Jean Rhys novel about a woman’s life of desperation between the two world wars – was answered when I realized the phrase comes from an Emily Dickinson poem. The theme of loneliness ties the books together: the sadness of realising that a place you love may have a place for you no longer.
Rebecca Foster 4/4
Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton
W&N 9781474600606 pbk Jul 2017
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