11th Oct 2012
Landfall by Helen Gordon
As début novels go, Landfall by Helen Gordon is certainly ambitious. The former associate editor of Granta magazine, Gordon clearly knows London artsy types well: her main character, Alice Robinson, is a living, breathing archetype.
She is an art critic for a failing magazine, she listens to experimental doom-metal, she drinks too much wine during the day and smokes rollies and lives in a converted warehouse with a bewitching view of the City.
So far, so unsurprising – especially given Gordon’s own background – but Alice also has a sister, Janey, who went missing as a teenager.
It is this eerie and unsettling back-story that started to enchant me as the novel began to unfold.
Alice’s magazine crumples under the pressure of the recession, and she is suddenly (conveniently) offered the role of house-sitter by her suburban parents who are off on an eight-month travel adventure.
She finds herself transported away from the bright lights of the City and back to her youthful roots: to her old Girl Guide leader, to her sister’s teenage boyfriend, to the watchful next-door neighbours.
But she is also taken back to inescapable reminders of Janey, and the mystery surrounding her disappearance.
Here, I expected the novel’s dynamic to shift from its slow, unwinding narrative. I wanted her stay in her parents’ house to affect her, to change her in some way, but Alice just appears to limp onwards having messy interactions with people, being far too self-aware, and thinking about everything – the sky, the trees, the playground swings – too symbolically and in terms too abstract for her to be a sympathetic character.
There are definite positives – Gordon’s portrayal of the intoxicatingly oppressive nature of suburban living being one of the best. New, more interesting characters are also introduced: Emily, the comic American cousin with an unnerving obsession with her youth, and Danny, the weirdo boy-next-door who feels disturbingly detached from the world.
Their stories are far more real and infinitely more engaging, with fantastic dialogue and moments of vivid description that left me hungry for more.
The rest of the novel, however, remains bleakly woolly, uninspiring and – dare I say it – a tad self-indulgent. Although much of the writing is witty and colourful, there are too many extended metaphors that trail on so far you’ve forgotten what they were supposed to be describing.
Any kind of action is very slow indeed, very little character development is witnessed, and I was left unmoved by pretty much everything.
It’s the sort of novel you’d probably need to read three times and write an essay about before you finally ‘got’ it – in this competitive market, and with most of us pressed for time, that isn’t something to which every reader will be willing to commit.
I was disappointed after the tantalizing promise shown in the middle sections, and not even the supposed ‘cliff-hanger’ ending (as the front cover reviews anticipate) could ignite any sort of emotion from me.
Helen Gordon is a hugely talented writer, but I felt let down by the seeming lack of destination in Landfall. I’d be interested to read her future novels – because I think she has more to give than this.
Recommended for: Fans of the bohemian, the arts scene, and those who are looking for a good long think rather than a story.