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Pickle Me This

November 13, 2011

The Lightning Field by Heather Jessup

Knowing what I know now of Heather Jessup, it’s not altogether surprising that we had more than a few mutual friends. Heather Jessup is the sort who’s beloved by a lot of people, and the reason why was underlined to me the day she showed up at my door bearing a jar of pickles. Which was, sadly, only a few days before Halifax stole her away from Toronto, and though I was only just beginning to know her, I knew enough to be sorry to see her go. But it was consoling to know I had her first novel The Lightning Field to look forward to, and it’s doubly nice now that the book is read to know it forever has a place in my library.

Partly because it’s a Gaspereau Book. Oh, just to hold one of these! And this one in particular, the dust jacket illustrated with diagrams of the Avro Arrow. Remove the dust jacket itself, and the book itself is patterned with the planes, triangles fashioned together into lines. The book’s typeface is a brand new one called Goluska (“used in advance of… commercial release”), and the note goes on to explain, “Also making brief appearances are Courier New and Adobe’s Garamond Premier Pro.” Beautiful thick paper, such considered design– a Gaspereau book is always something wonderful to behold. And to hold. Except that I always feel like I should wash my hands before I touch one, which makes picking up the books a little difficult.

But I managed to cast aside thoughts of my mucky mitts, and start reading The Lightning Field late last week, and it read as something apart, like nothing I could directly compare it to. It’s the story of a couple, Lucy and Peter Jacobs who meet at the end of WWII, and get married, because it’s what you do. And because they love each other, and because they’ve got dreams. Peter is working as an engineer with the A.V. Roe Company, working on the Avro Arrow’s wing’s, and they’ve built a brand new house on Maple Street in Malton. The children arrive, the years go by, Lucy looks around the cul-du-sac of her life, and imagines, “Is this it?”

And then one day– on the day the Arrow is revealed to the world for the very first time– on her way to the bakery to pick up a cake, Lucy is found unconscious in a field, struck by lightning, burned and comatose. The space between the couple becomes broader through the struggles of her recovery, and the damage become irrevocable when Peter’s dreams are smashed with the cancelling of the Arrow project. The years that follow fail to realign their lives, so spun out by loss of promise.

The Years is the book that this book put me in mind of, structurally speaking. Though The Lightning Field spans more than forty years, nothing is epic in its presentation. As Woolf did, rather than years, Jessup hones in on the moments, and the culimination of these moments into something that is life. And it is very much like life, the novel that she makes. The way the people talk in particular, and the moments themselves with their details– it’s as if Jessup has infused her novel with the essence of the short story in this way. And I’ve never read a historical novel that felt so contemporary, which is all in the prose, of course– Jessup’s writing is charged with energy, and vision, the whole way though.

The whole way through is not a journey without its bumps, of course, though the problems are less remarkable than its strengths. At times it felt as though these characters were so contained in themselves that it was difficult to understand who they were, which was certainly the case in their relations with one another, but as a reader, I wanted more privileged access.  And the other problem, which I try to forget because the spell wasn’t otherwise broken, but I can’t– there would have been no CN Tower to see from Andy’s window as his plane departed from the city in 1971 (but then maybe I’d fixate more on this than the average person due to my background in CN Tower fiction).

However, The Lightning Field is not one of those books in which such detail makes or breaks, because the novel is constructed upon something more abstract and true than historical fact. And in this, the book succeeds, and also mesmerizes. Yes, with the detail, even (or especially?) removed from its context– all the bits about flight, and the engineering of a plane’s wing, and Toronto geography, and the music, and the orange colour of a suburban living room wall– so much that Jessup gets totally right. But truly, the effect comes of nothing of what this book is really about having to do with plot exactly, or with character. Context was never the point anyway, and not so simple in this way, the novel is almost a poem. A story of love, and family, and broken dreams, but it transcends that, and becomes about more and less at once, universal and specific, and absolutely transporting.

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