My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”I heave myself out of the darkness slowly, painfully.
And there I am, and there he is…”
It is interesting that Lily Brooks-Dalton named this book after the Jean Rhys’s novel of the same name. I’ve never read the Rhys’s book, but it is a notoriously depressing novel. The premise of this novel could certainly lead readers to believe that this book, too, is destined to be depressing, but for me it proved to be strikingly uplifting. Jean Rhys takes her title from an Emily Dickinson poem.
Good morning, Midnight!
I'm coming home,
Day got tired of me –
How could I of him?
Sunshine was a sweet place,
I liked to stay –
But Morn didn't want me – now –
So good night, Day!
Dickinson---Rhys---Brooks-Dalton are writers who are connected through strings of written words that are like strands of DNA passed from page to mind to pen from one generation of writer to the next. One writer lives in the next one who then influences the next one.
The Earth goes silent.
There is no bang, no debris cloud, no chaos.
Augustine, who elected not to be on the last plane out of the Arctic Circle, is strangely contented. He has never really cared for the rest of humanity. He has always been lost in his own brilliance and focused on his astronomy career, which took off like a meteorite, but now at 78 years old, he isn’t really sure if he has achieved all he was meant to achieve. ”His work ethic was strong, his ego engorged, his results groundbreaking, but he wasn’t satisfied. He had never been satisfied and never would be. It wasn’t success he craved, or even fame, it was history: he wanted to crack the universe open like a ripe watermelon, to arrange the mess of pulpy seeds before his dumbfounded colleagues. He wanted to take the dripping red fruit in his hands and quantify the guts of infinity, to look back into the dawn of time and glimpse the very beginning. He wanted to be remembered.”
He seduced women. He made women fall in love with him. It became a game for him. He played hot and cold and felt even more empowered over their desperate efforts to get him back. ”It was a thrill just to exist. There were control rooms full of humming equipment, enormous telescopes, endless arrays. There were beautiful women, college girls and townies and visiting scholars, and he would’ve slept with them all if he could have.”
There is, after all, only so much time in a day.
For most of us, if we were at the Arctic Circle or floating along in space and suddenly lost all contact with the rest of humanity, we would probably have a moment of panic or maybe even a complete meltdown. Augustine’s reaction was more along the lines of... huh, interesting. Of course, after being too high in the stratosphere his whole life to have relationships, beyond his physical needs, this isn’t that much different from his normal life, except things are quieter. He can focus.
Well, except some moron left their eight year old daughter behind.
How could this happen? Just at the moment he thought he was completely free, a cable snakes out from the ground snagging him, keeping him tethered to the Earth. He is angry. He was so close.
The other story we are allowed to follow is of Sully and her fellow astronauts on their way back from an exploration of Jupiter. ”The receivers were picking up the murmurs of space all around them, from celestial bodies millions of light years away---it was only Earth that wasn’t saying anything.”
The silence is deafening.
They are professionals who are trained not to panic. They will have been gone two years by the time they touch down on Earth. They put their minds to work on the possibilities. We are noisy creatures, now silent, which makes them believe that whatever is wrong with Earth is catastrophic.
Augustine would have never bothered to go fire up the radio, but now that he is responsible for Iris, he feels he needs to make some attempt to find another human being. He reaches Sully. Neither have the answers the other needs. They are both lost in their own desolations.
The calmness of this novel reminds me of On the Beach where the people who are left alive are resigned to their fate and are trying to enjoy the last few days of their lives. There is no pell-mell race for safety, because there is no safety. The publisher is also making connections to the recent post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven even to the extent of using very similar cover art. This is a mature work with tight prose and elegant observations. Brooks-Dalton even manages to make me like Augustine by finding the spark of humanity in him that was always smothered by his brilliance.
This is the most tranquil end of the world book you will ever read. Highly Recommended!
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