Archive for October, 2014

GOD IS AN ASTRONAUT by Alyson Foster

‘The day of the accident, Jess is in the backyard with a chainsaw, clearing space to build the greenhouse she’s always wanted. And, as always, she is thinking of Arthur. Arthur, her colleague in the botany department, who never believed she’d actually start the project. Arthur, who has cut off contact, escaping to the subarctic to study the pines. But now there has been a disaster, connected to Jess’s husband’s space tourism business: the explosion of a shuttle filled with commercial passengers, igniting a media frenzy on her family’s doorstep. Jess’s engineer husband is implicated, and she knows there is information he’s withholding from her, even as the cameras turn to her for answers. Struggling, Jess writes to the only person she can be candid with. She writes to Arthur. And in her emails, freighted with longing, regret, and the old habits of seduction, she tries to untangle how her life has changed in one instant, but also slowly, and how it might change still. Unfolding through Jess’s emails to Arthur, written in glimmering prose, this extraordinary debut is a dazzling modern-day love story.’

This book split the Berwick Book Group down the middle. Some members absolutely hated it. Nichola writes: ‘In all honesty, I hated this book. I struggled with it from page one but seeing as it wasn’t very big I persevered. I finally gave up about half way through after deciding that it was overwritten and downright boring. Upon giving up, I skipped to the last few pages and can honestly say I didn’t feel like I’d missed a thing! I found Jessica uninteresting and didn’t connect with her at all’

Martin was another unimpressed reader: ‘This book is the reading equivalent of being trapped in a railway carriage while the person next to you carries on a very loud mobile phone conversation. At least in this case I could shut the book. About 1/4 of the book is taken up with pointless and repetitive Headers, which I dutifully scanned to try and glean some relevance. There was none.  About half way through I decided it wasn’t going anywhere and I wouldn’t care if it did. Horrible.’

Jill was still reading the book and was in two minds, but Bronwen and I managed to convince her to carry on reading because we had both really enjoyed it. Bronwen found the book original and richer than she was initially thinking in the opening chapters  – she thinks that the complexity takes a while to build.  She particularly loved the evocative descriptions of space. For her, Jessica – and her agonising about relationships – was a pain, but an engaging character nonetheless.  Bronwen also enjoyed the other characters which were all well-drawn, particularly Jessica’s sister who, despite her job as a psycho-analyst, was down-to-earth and practical, telling Jessica that sometimes all one can do is put one foot in front of the other.

I, too, enjoyed being in Jessica’s company.  She was brittle and flawed, but fascinating and full of feeling. I liked the one-sided email communications and I thought it was clever that we got to know Arthur only through Jessica’s responses to his unseen emails.  All the other characters, Jessica’s husband Liam, her children Corrine and Jack, and the documentary maker, Lecroix, are brought to the reader only via Jessica’s emails, so her voice and her story telling skills are crucial.  What she leaves out and what she chooses to emphasise all add to the narrative.  Alyson Foster absolutely nailed this for me. I decided that the title God is an Astronaut comes from Jessica’s realisation that stepping away from Earth/earth brings emotional distance and clarity.  Each time she goes onto the roof of her house, or climbs a tree, an important revelation occurs.  In the final space flight sequence, she realises that she must leave her broken marriage and start again. The flight is a wonderful way of distilling the essential conflict, placing her and Liam in an extreme situation which magnifies the cracks in their relationship. On one level this would seem to be a depressing plot – Jessica loses her husband, her lover, and she never completes the greenhouse she is building. However, this story is about Jessica reaching that moment of absolute revelation and understanding about what she must do and, in that sense, it is uplifting.  The symbolism of the red roses at the end confirms that.  The roses, the only survivors in her garden, are Jessica.

BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE GROUP

Three from Martin:

  1. The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. This is a Harold Fry of a book. Quirky, lots of ups and downs with a real feel-good ending.
  2. Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. Imagine the characters from the play Abigail’s Party. All caricatures which somehow work together in a humerous if slightly “cringeworthy” way. The parade of prejudices and inadequacies on display surrounding a local bye-election are legion. There are no happy endings and no characters save the unbelievably awful but it exercises a strange compulsion to make sure I reached then end. This is not damning with faint praise I shall look forward to another.
  3. Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves. She never disappoints. This Vera Novel has already been televised but this in no way interfered with the superior written tale.

Nichola suggested ‘Where Rainbows End’ by Cecilia Ahern (which was also released as ‘Dear Rosie). ‘It’s one of my all time favourite books and, like out October book, is made up of various written correspondences. That said, it’s much better done and is something I’ve read time and again without getting bored.

Jill recommends ‘Sing Jess Sing’ by Tricia Coxon.

Ann Coburn

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About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-berwick-book-group.

October 2014
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