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Little earthquakes.

February 20, 2012

At the start of Landfall, the hypnotic debut novel from former Granta associate editor Helen Gordon, journalist Alice Robinson tries to read on her flight from New York to London. ‘J.B. Priestley’s An English Journey?’ sniffs the American woman in the seat beside her when she notices the cover of Alice’s book. ‘She shook her head and settled back to tell Alice how ridiculous it was to talk of journeys, which imply distance and perhaps transformation, when the entire country was smaller than Florida. “An English stroll,” she said, and snorted. “An English hop.”’

Tiny it may be, but England is an island of contrasts. Alice’s journey in Landfall—from the hip postcodes of London’s East End to the the city’s quaint and well-tended outer suburbs—is both literal and metaphorical, an exploration of place and identity that brilliantly captures the curious contradictions of contemporary urban life.

Alice is a writer for trendy arts magazine Meta—the kind of hipster rag that favours articles about the history of pubic hair grooming over pieces about factories in China—and finds herself without a job when her employer goes to the wall. Although Alice is highly regarded in her field and has numerous offers of freelance work, she’s beginning to question the value of what she does: ‘”sometimes,”’ she confides to colleague and friend Peter, ‘”I look down at my desk and it’s a time warp there. It’s still 1968. 1976 on a good day. It’s all Lacan and prawn cocktails and Black Forest gateau.”’

For lack of a better plan, Alice takes up her parents’ offer to housesit for them while they go overseas for several months. Back in the the quiet doldrums of the suburbs, Alice is increasingly disconnected from her surroundings, becoming a sort of helpless spectator in her own life. She is haunted by the unsolved disappearance of her younger sister Janey seventeen years ago, and Janey’s presence in Alice’s memory only intensifies in their parents’ home: her sister’s bedroom is still exactly as it was on the day she left and never returned. Janey ‘was always just outside the door waiting in the draughty porch, peering through the keyhole, tapping lightly, with one finger, against the wood.’

Meanwhile, next door, the neighbours’ teenage son, Danny, is having a peculiar crisis of his own. Like Alice, Danny is adrift; but while Alice becomes unmoored from an established life and career in London, Danny has never fit in. Rescued from drowning as a small child, he seems unable to shake off the taint of his near-death experience—he is ‘alive, yet something clung to him: a shadow on the heart, a murmur on the lung.’

Matters aren’t helped—for Alice or for Danny—by the sudden arrival of Alice’s sixteen-year-old American niece, Emily, whose obsession with health supplements and self-help books are at odds with her aunt’s growing ennui and lack of direction. ‘”You can totally talk to me if you feel like it would help,”’ Emily tells Alice, referring to Janey’s disappearance. ‘”I had a cat that disappeared once—Mom said it probably got eaten by the coyotes—and I felt really messed up about that for a long time.”’

Gordon’s style is droll and melancholy, skilfully portrayong her characters’ geographic and emotional landscapes. No one in Landfall seems entirely at ease with their surroundings; they are all, perhaps, caught in the awkward space between their desires and their reality, trapped on little islands of their own making.  

The whole concept of islands is a recurring theme in the novel, and one that Gordon poignantly deploys: reflecting on her relationship with Peter, with whom she’s long held rather stifled romantic feelings, Alice thinks that ‘she knew him too well. She’d already walked all over the island and climbed up to the highest point and seen the sandy beach and the palm trees that grew along the beach in a green fringe. It was utterly familiar; as impossible to claim as to renounce.’

Place and character are central to Landfall, and the novel’s setting takes on as much narrative life as the figures living within it. Spending her days inside the house, Alice notes that it ‘seemed to be changing around her (…) The walls peeled back and the roof lifted off. The paintwork flaked, the lawn lengthened, the concrete cracked.’

But Gordon’s dry wit, and her attention to human detail, grounds the slightly surreal and melancholy aspects of this suburban odyssey. Alice puts on a DVD of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice to watch with Emily, thinking they might somehow bond over the experience. Her cousin twists strands of hair around her fingers as the film plays, and then simply shrugs when the credits roll and Alice waits expectantly for a response. ‘”I guess I’d rather have seen something in English,” Emily said, and yawned. “Can I watch TV now?”’ ‘I probably shouldn’t have started with Tarkovsky,’ thinks Alice.

In the novel’s final pages, Gordon’s themes—islands, identity, negotiating the pitfalls of modern living—converge in brilliant and unexpected ways. It would be remiss to give anything away, but the novel’s final third takes a direction that’s both startling and perfectly fitting. 

This is one of the most exciting and different debut novels I’ve read in a long time; I can’t wait to see what Gordon does next. 

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