Landfall (2011) by Helen Gordon
Landfall is a funny book. I don't mean that it's amusing - the absence of any humour is one of the problems with it. I mean that it confounded my expectations, but not in a particularly good way. Having read the blurb and extracts from a number of reviews, I had a certain impression of what I was about to read, but almost nothing I anticipated turned out to have anything to do with the reality of the book. Although there are various elements of mystery and intrigue running through it, as well as a continuous theme about the ways in which we connect with others, it sidesteps all of these and isn't really about anything at all.
The story is essentially a character study, focused on a 34-year-old woman, Alice, who is single and living in London. An art critic with a good reputation but no real roots, she is haunted by the disappearance of her younger sister, Janey, when both were teenagers. When the magazine she works for folds, she returns to her parents' home in the suburbs to house-sit and reflect on her life. Shortly afterwards, she is charged with looking after her 16-year-old American cousin, Emily, who joins her in the house. The third protagonist is Danny, a lonely kleptomaniac teenager living with his mum and dad next door, who observes the pair and develops an awkward crush on Emily.
Like a lot of debuts, Landfall feels slightly amateurish, and what it reminded me of more than anything was the early work of one of my favourite authors, Scarlett Thomas. I'm not saying it possesses the same immaturity as, say, one of Thomas's fluffy Lily Pascale mysteries, but then it isn't trying to be an amusing, zeitgeisty crime thriller (and anyway, a little bit of those books' warmth, zest and verve definitely wouldn't go amiss here). There are flashes of something really interesting in Alice's conversations with her friends - and later with an artist she idolises, Karin Ericsson - but the narrative seems to swerve away just as these start to touch on genuinely engrossing topics. The dialogue is noticeably artificial in a number of places, and the characters lack the depth they need in a reflective novel like this. Emily, in particular, seems to be a complete caricature of an airhead American teenager, obsessed with her looks and health, perceiving all adults as ancient. The cartoonishness of these character traits seems out of place with the sombre and serious tone of the book and the quiet, uneventful nature of the plot. I never felt the narrative really got under the skin of the characters, even Alice, whose ruminations are described in such detail - and Danny, undoubtedly the most intriguing person in the book, is underused.
Then there's this claim, taken from the back of the book (not a quote from a critic, this is part of the actual blurb): '[this novel] culminates in one of the most surprising and destabilising endings you'll have ever read'. As you can imagine, this raised my expectations for the ending considerably; I was expecting to be knocked off my feet. And then... nothing happens. I mean, there's a climactic event, and some of what I think is described in films as 'mild peril', but nothing revelatory or explosive or in any way staggering. The recurrent references to Janey turn out to be something of a red herring, and perhaps it's the genre-fiction reader in me, but I found this very frustrating.
All in all, it's safe to say I was disappointed by this book. However much the plot hovered on the edge of something intriguing, I felt I was always left to watch rich white people having minor existential crises, while the really interesting stuff was happening somewhere just off the page. That said, I think Helen Gordon has a promising and unique voice, and I will be keeping an eye out for her future work.