Reviewed by Gill Davies
This is a gripping read – one of those suspense novels that you don’t want to put aside to do other things. And it’s gripping not just because there’s a mystery to be uncovered but also because the characters are strongly drawn and the reader is quickly involved with them. Page one gives us a generic hint that we are about to read the equivalent of a locked-room whodunnit, though the room will be private plane and much of the plot will turn on two people who actually get out.
A group of characters is assembled waiting for their plane to take off from Martha’s Vineyard and take the short journey across the sea to New York. We are among the rich and famous: David Bateman is the head of a TV company with a huge, populist appeal. (and, yes, his surname does indicate the style and content of his programmes.) With him are his wife Maggie and two children, Rachel and JJ, who have been spending the summer away from this workaholic millionaire. Friends have been invited to fly back to New York with them – Ben Kipling, who does something very dubious in Wall Street, and his wife Sarah. Maggie has, at the last minute, invited an acquaintance from her holiday, the painter Scott Burroughs who lives on Martha’s Vineyard and is going to New York to promote his next exhibition. Travelling with the group is Bateman’s heavily armed bodyguard. We are also told who the pilot and co-pilot are, something of their background and that of the one-woman cabin crew. Clearly something dreadful is going to happen on this flight!
Sixteen minutes after take off, the plane crashes into the sea and only Scott and JJ, a four-year-old boy, survive. Scott saves his own life and JJ’s in a prodigious swim to shore. The rest of the novel will probe why and how the plane crashed, with flashbacks to the characters’ lives inviting speculation and creating suspense. Only in the very final pages is the mystery uncovered. Until then, there are several fascinating threads that broaden out from the generic base, exposing a sharp picture of contemporary America. There are individual chapters on each character offering incriminatory hints about their being the target of an attack. Ben Kipling is under investigation for criminal banking activities; a monstrous talk-show host called Bill Cunningham milks the crash for conspiracy theories and sensationalism. This egomaniacal figure would be a satirical exaggeration but for the existence of Fox News and its appalling ‘reporters’ and anchor people. His boss David Bateman has previously been targeted for kidnap and blackmail (hence the bodyguard). And Scott Burroughs goes from being a private citizen to a hounded celebrity (and worse). The piranhas swim around JJ who will inherit a fortune, and the motives of those left alive, as well as the victims, are poisoned by greed and speculation.
As well as being a suspenseful thriller, the novel is a dramatic critique of several aspects of privileged America. They include the amorality of the banker who sees only self interest; the nauseating right wing US ‘news’ media with their emphasis on entertainment and profit at the expense of facts, truth or serious analysis; and the lazy sense of entitlement of JJ’s waster of an uncle. It is at times a sharply observed satire of the nature of contemporary power.
Noah Hawley has published four previous novels and written for TV. He is the creator and writer of the very successful TV series Fargo. He has a sharp eye for human folly in its American variant but is also very humane and ultimately optimistic in the way that he resolves the plot of this novel. And it is thoughtful. There is an underlying theme pondering the way lives are intertwined and determined by chance encounters and by other people’s histories.
Everyone has their path. The choices they’ve made. How any two people end up in the same place at the same time is a mystery.
I do recommend this as a thought-provoking and engrossing novel.
Noah Hawley, Before the Fall (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016). 0781444779752, 390pp., hardback.