Twelve-year-old Luke has been kidnapped and taken to Battersea Powerstation, forced to shovel coal and hidden from the outside world of a reimagined smog-filled London. With his friend, Ravi, he is desperately trying to earn an amber ticket, a way out of the station and back to his family. Then a new girl, Jess, turns up on their line and threatens to ruin everything.
But that’s not all…
Punished for trying to help Jess, Luke and Jess are sent to clean the sewage from a room full of pipes. Somewhere inside one of these pipes is a voice, calling to Luke. That voice is Alma and she is a ghostcloud.
What is a ghostcloud? How did Luke hear her? Will they ever escape?
This is a much talked about book of 2022 and for good reason.
The woman of this novel has given up her career as an artist – she had a dream job at a gallery – in order to care for her son. The maths, as is so often the case, helped in this decision. She earned less than her husband and, on top of that, she felt the pain of leaving her son to scream at daycare. So she is at home, all day, and for most of the week – as her husband is away for work – with only her two-year-old son for company.
What Yoder does so brilliantly – and I would recommend reading reviews of this novel just to see how unsettling some find it – is express the passive aggressive rage that builds up in a mother (I would say a care-giver of any gender in the same situation) who has been told she should be able to have it all, who has been told that feminism has done its job, and discovers with the arrival of her child that she is the ultimate authority over and caregiver for the baby and that, though it is exceedingly hard, tiring (and of course also fun and rewarding at times) work, no one in the world of paid work considers motherhood to be work. A woman who gives up her job to care for her child should consider herself to be luckily luxuriating in all that free time.
This is my second novel by Colum McCann. Set mostly in New York in 1974, with the Vietnam war as its backdrop, a series of characters spin around the tightrope walk of Philippe Petit who managed to break into the Twin Towers, stretch a rope between the two and walk right out over the city.
The different characters all turn around this walk. What was happening as it took place and whether they saw it, and how their lives were somehow linked by that and by a car crash involving an Irish monk and a prostitute who he driving back to the Bronx from jail.
To say too much more about the plot would spoil the novel. What surprised me was how particular to McCann the book felt. Though he’s writing about different characters, McCann has a style that is recognisably his. His imaginative retelling of Philippe Petit’s love of the highwire is probably most moving to me. Perhaps it is no surprise that he reappeared in the other, and later, novel of McCann’s that I read, Apeirogon, set mostly in Israel and Palestine.