Tuesday 23 January 2018

Unravelling the puzzle after a fatal flight

Thriller: Before The Fall, Noah Hawley, Hodder & Stoughton, €19.50

Noah Hawley paints an excruciatingly accurate portrait of modern American life in Before the Fall.
Noah Hawley paints an excruciatingly accurate portrait of modern American life in Before the Fall.

Anne Marie Scanlon

There are some books, for example Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, that stay with you long after you've read them. The characters are so real and because of this their fates matter. Before The Fall by Noah Hawley is one of these books. On a foggy August evening a private plane takes off from Martha's Vineyard bound for Manhattan.

There are 11 people on board, media tycoon David Bateman, his wife Maggie who "was a preschool teacher not so long ago, living in a six-story walk-up, with two mean girls, like Cinderella," and their two children 9-year-old Rachel and JJ, four; Ben Kipling a prominent Wall Street banker and his wife Sarah who wonders about herself "was she staying alive now just to move money around?" The passenger list is completed by two middle aged men - struggling painter Scott Burroughs who has hitch-hiked a lift and Gil, the Israel who provides "domestic security" for the Batemans. There are three crew, pilot James Melody, first officer Charlie Busch and flight attendant Emma Lightner.

Sixteen minutes after take off the plane hits the water and only two people - Scott and JJ survive the crash. What follows is a multi-layered narrative that follows the events after the crash, how Scott managed an epic eight-hour swim which ensured his and JJ's survival, the investigations to determine why the flight crashed and the media circus that soon surrounds the tragedy.

Interspersed with the 'after' Hawley relates the 'before', of each character. As the author states; "everyone is from someplace. We all have stories, our lives unfolding along crooked lines, colliding in unexpected ways." Each person on the plane is so fully realised that the reader cannot but care about each of them. In many ways this mirrors a real-life tragedy, when the public become intimately acquainted with the lives of dead strangers.

Before the Fall is, broadly, a thriller - the investigations (both FBI and Homeland Security) to find out why the plane crashed - was it pilot error, mechanical failure, industrial espionage or terrorist plot, is engrossing and gripping. But there is much more to this novel than the unravelling of a puzzle.

Hawley paints an excruciatingly accurate picture of modern American life, from the crazily rich to the illegal immigrant cabbies and especially 24-hour news media. David Bateman runs ALS, a news channel where "nothing was simple except for the message." (In ALS, editorialising and opinion have replaced facts.) The star turn at ALS is Bill Milligan "an angry white guy with withering wit." When Scott Burroughs saves the life of four-year-old JJ he is immediately hailed as a hero. Everyone wants his story but Scott isn't keen on the idea of instant celebrity and goes into hiding. Despite that Ben Kipling was about to be indicted by the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) and Milligan himself has been phone tapping (something that David Bateman found out the weekend he died) the right-wing pundit decides to focus his own "investigation" on Scott. The painter was never meant to be on the plane, he is not rich and, with the logic of an old-style 'Witch Trial' he survived.

Slowly but surely the mystery surrounding the crash is finally solved. And it is heart-wrenching.

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