Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Dealing with Tragedy: Noah Haley's Before the Fall

I received an advance copy of Noah Hawley's Before The Fall from Net Galley in exchange for a review.

The novel begins with a plane crash of a private jet, killing all but two passengers. One (Scott) is a failed painter who was invited to hop on the flight by the wife of a Fox News-like executive. The other is the 4 year old son (JJ) of the wife and the exec. Scott manages to swim back from the crash scene in the Atlantic coast, carrying JJ to safety.

Initially hailed as a hero, a Bill O'Reilly type pundit begins a campaign to rain suspicion on Scott, asking question about why he was even on the doomed plane and the odd coincidence that the subject of Scott's work are landscapes of human and natural disasters. With revelations that another passenger was about to be arrested for laundering money from terrorist sponsoring states, several state agencies emerge eager to find out what really happen and whether Scott knows more than he suggest.

Hawley slowly reveals the lead up to the plane crash, jumping back and forth from past to present, exploring the crash victims' lives and last thoughts prior to getting on the plane while also delving into the devastated lives of those left behind trying to understand why things have happened and why they have survived. With several high profile plane crashes in recent years (including one the week before this book's release) Hawley's portraits seem timely but also poignant and insightful, exploring how we compute these disasters and try to assign meaning even when the true answer to all the questions are often technical or senseless.

This is a clever, intriguing and engrossing read that is good for folks looking for a light but smart summer read. While Hawley keeps one guessing about what caused the crash, the point of Before The Fall is not just about finding out the truth. Hawley is just as interested in exploring the trauma and pain of those faced with tragedy and tries to dig into the headspace of those who have died, hoping to discover meaning even where none is to be found. While the revelation at the end may leave some less than satisfied, I appreciated that Hawley chose to emphasize different themes and issues than most summer thrillers.

That said, the book is uneven. Hawley seems unsure about his writing style, at times using a straight forward page turning approac and other times delving into more literary passages. This was off putting, especially when the story is told from Scott's perspective, as he quickly goes from an every-man kind of voice to a much more introspective and profound one. I just didn't buy this change and found it unnatural, even if the shift in style is intended to emphasize the changes Scott experiences as a result of surviving.

I'll give a lukewarm recommendation to Before The Fall. Hawley manages to tell an engaging story that is positively distinct from many other summer reads. I just wish Hawley had straight out chosen what kind of voice he wanted to convey in the writing and the lack of consistency made the reading experience less enjoyable than it could have been.

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