Fiction Reviews


(2023) Christopher Priest, Gollancz, £22, hrdbk, 298pp, ISBN 978-1-399-60883-1


Fear of flying should be the least of your phobias. Airports themselves are scary enough and much of this book is centred on the lonely, limbo state of being in transition between places that airport departure area waiting facilities offer, trapping passengers and luggage in endless delays, queues, security checks, etc. Focus centres on how easy it is to get lost and panicked in airports (as I experienced personally at Toronto International).

The (entirely fictional) story centres on a fifty year old mystery involving an actress, Jeanette Marchand, who inexplicably vanished at London Heathrow after flying in from The States. Known to have disembarked and entered the arrivals area, she was then never seen or heard of again. Abduction? Accident? Publicity stunt? Deliberate vanishing to create a new identity for herself? Something alien or supernatural?

Science fiction elements are very much in the background here, but they are not ruled out. They are given some subtle hints and cryptic touches, running like an underlying shadow effect. Overall, the book reads like a more down to Earth, though by no means cosily wrapped up mystery.

Decades after Marchand disappears, a young film fan, Justin Farmer, destined to become an important film critic, gets infatuated by the actressís screen work and sets out to solve the puzzle. He has his own reasons to fear both flight and airport transfers. As a child, he took a tourist flight on an early aviation era pleasure trip to Blackpool. He was uncomfortable and sick during the ride, but worse, the very next group of tourists crashed.

Living in Manchester, close to what was then Ringway Airport) now Manchester International), Farmer was absent from home when a landing 20 passenger bearing plane crashed into a house close to his own on its final approach to the airport, killing everyone on board along with the house occupants. This was a real-life tragedy (my own Great Aunts lived on the estate and witnessed the aftermath to the tragedy first hand). Inevitably, Farmer is afraid of both air travel and airports as a result.

As his career progresses, Farmer finds himself invited to various international film festivals with no choice but to fly. The book then splinters into multiple strands:

a/. Farmerís own air travels

b/. His reflections on Marchandís final known journey.

c/. His thoughts on various genuine air disasters, including a very moving meditation on The Munich Air Disaster that decimated the original Manchester United football team in 1958.

d/. Thoughts on other passengers inexplicably lost without trace soon after disembarking from aircraft around the World.

e/. Film review segues are inserted which become increasingly concerned with airport scenes. These range from Casablanca (1941), emphasising scenes of refugees in transition and Bogart helping Bergman And her husband escape by air, while he is left behind, to 2004ís The Terminal film, a fictionalised retelling of the life of Mehran Karimi Nasseri (renamed Viktor Navorski in the film), played by Tom Hanks, displaced by bureaucracy and politics until he ends up living for years in Charles De Gaulle Airport. The film gives him a happy release while in reality he was still there up to 2006 when he was hospitalised. 1962ís La Jetee (forerunner to The Twelve Monkeys) is also touched on, and helps emphasise the subtle SF elements of the novel. Its time travel displacements centre on airport locations.

f/. The weakest thread is the protagonistís own relationship and career development as other characters seem rather under-developed, including, his main love interest.

Strongest is the alienating and mysterious descriptions of airports. After one flight, the protagonist gets inexplicably lost in a Far Eastern airside area, misdirected by various airport staff, bad signage, wanderings into private areas, left uncertain of which country he is even in any more, and increasingly panicked. While he finally gets free of what might be just natural disorientation or the brink of a Picnic A Hanging Rock (1975 movie version) style vanishing, it is a really scary sequence of tension and danger.

Ultimately the underlying mystery seems to reach a wrap though there is an easily anticipated twist to come. There is also a climatic disaster movie style situation for the characters to struggle through though unexpectedly it has nothing to do with aircraft or airports.

Priestís knowledge and research into flight and airport history is meticulous and the book also shows a deep love and fascination for cinema that will be very appealing to film buffs. Much is, alas, also sadly left simply incomplete.

We get to know little of Marchand even as some aspects of her story are filled in. Priest attributes her with Mae Clarkeís role in the 1931 James Cagney gangster flick, Public Enemy, receiving the famous grapefruit to the face punishment treatment from that film (which Priest acknowledges doing in his endnotes).

The sense of weird and dangerous is likely to remain with any readers on future air travel expeditions. Probably not a book to read on planes or while waiting for a flight to be calledÖ

Arthur Chappell


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