Examining public, private struggles

The Lightning Field, Heather Jessup, Gaspereau Press, trade paperback $27.95.

Even if you didn’t catch the many Toronto-area references, after only the first few chapters of The Lightning Field you would likely pick up this is a Canadian novel.

Something about the style and the seriousness — no, the earnestness — that I can’t quite put my finger on.

This is not to say the story is boring. In fact, Heather Jessup’s debut novel is quite engaging in that off-kilter way that seems very Canadian to me.

Not since the heyday of Nevil Shute do I think I’ve read a novel that glories so unabashedly in both technology — aeronautics to be precise­ — and marital relations.

Most of the narrative takes place in the late 1950s. The Russians have launched the first satellite, the famous Sputnik, to circle Earth in shallow space. It was followed soon after by the first spaceflight of a living being: Laika, the Russian dog, who was launched in Sputnik 2 without a landing plan and accordingly died somewhere in space. These historical events play in the background — and overhead — of the more personal story of Peter and Lucy Jacobs in the Malton suburb of Toronto.

Peter is an engineer working on the Avro Arrow, Canada’s doomed attempt to produce the world’s fastest, most advanced aircraft for intercepting enemy attackers. It was doomed, of course, not by design flaws but by the Diefenbaker government’s cost cutting. While flight testing had already begun, the government shut down the program and opted instead to join the United States in a missile defence shield for North America.

[attach]5414[/attach]Meanwhile Peter’s once-lively wife is wilting in the suburban bungalow raising their three children. She empathizes with Laika, stuck in his capsule going in circles until certain death.

Here is where the The Lightning Field seems to be going in the same direction as dozens of other novels of feminist consciousness-raising of the 1960s and 1970s. One expects Lucy to be signing up for university classes soon, taking up with scuptors, or running away to Greece to find her own space.

Rather, she’s hit by lightning. In a field.

It changes her, she’s in a coma for a while and after that is practically an invalid for a long time. When she recovers, she has a nebulous new quest.

Her kids, who had previously been narrative ciphers, grow into young adulthood and into their own as characters.

And it’s Peter who leaves the marriage, never recovering from the cancellation of the Arrow, taking on a deadly job with transit, until he’s drawn into an attempt to reconstruct his dream plane for a museum.

Jessup assuredly pulls the various strands of public and private history together. Everyone suffers in this novel — every life is a failed project requiring reconstruction, one of many ways the personal story reflects the public story — but The Lightning Field never bogs down in the dull or miserable minutiae of life.

The writing remains muscular, the dialogue brusquely evocative. The story unfolds with just the right amount of time-jumping and point-of-view switching to keep it interesting without becoming tangled, like so many other serious novels today — and it ends with a delightful subplot that at first seems irrelevant but, upon reflection, caps the novel appropriately.

After all is read and done, The Lightning Field is not a particularly uplifting or grand or momentous experience. Rather, it leaves the impression of being an honest chronicling of a place and time, and of the kind of people who were shaped and were in turn bent by that place and time.

It’s a place and time that must have at first seemed alien to the young Vancouver-raised writer Jessup. But it’s a testament to her efforts to find and dramatize the exact right details of that milieu — her very earnest efforts — that it works so well.