Wednesday, 9 March 2016

In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume

I sort of never got around to In the Unlikely Event- Judy Blume's first adult novel and first release in 15 years. I saw her in conversation with Partick Ness at YALC, which was incredible, and bought this novel on release day but have not picked it up until now. Like an idiot.

JB talked in the summer about how  In the Unlikely Event is fiction based on fact- if you didn't know these events actually happened it would be way too easy to write it off as unlikely, far-fetched impossibility, but Judy was a teenager living in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1952 and lived through the events of her novel. She saw for herself the three separate crashes within three months, saw the aftermath of the disasters and knew some of the victims, some of the families that were broken by those planes. She writes an ordinary, intricate spider's web of community happily going about its business before the first crash and we follow the fallout, the repercussions that are still felt over three generations.

It reminded me in some ways of Stephen King's Under The Dome (which I loved) because it's the story of a town as much as its inhabitants, and many of those inhabitants take a turn at narrating. They offer their own perspective or eyewitness account, usually preceded by a clipping from a newspaper to provide context. We witness the last moments of some of the victims; as soon as these voices describe the departure lounge we know they're doomed. There are at least 20 recurring perspectives and initially it's quite hard to keep them all separate in your head, to remember who is related to whom, who's 'going with' whom and so on. As the story goes on, the characters get more familiar, they grow into their personalities. Miri Ammerman, the first character to appear, provides a sort of anchor for the whole novel. She's a sharp but awkward 15 year old girl, not yet comfortable in her own skin, yet with all the standard life accessories- a 'perfect' boyfriend (they're in love) a 'perfect' best friend whose 'perfect' family she fantasises about being part of. Raised by a head-turningly beautiful Jewish single mother Rusty, grandmother Irene and Uncle Henry, she has a stable and loving home, but with quite an unconventional set up. Miri is our principal narrator, guiding us through that winter and through her own adolescence, her first love and the first life-changing secrets she ever has to keep. She's brave enough to reveal (much to her headmaster's fury) the slightly more unusual theories circulating around the town- three planes in three months? Sabotage? Aliens? Zombies? Communists? The tensions of the time are subtly woven into the characters and their reactions to the events they can't explain.

I loved the 1950s detail of the novel- Miri coveting cashmere twinsets and 'Finished' basements, the Volupté compacts and the glamorous novelty of air travel.  The hamburgers and the department stores. JB does such an incredible job of creating the atmosphere and dresses the set of a small 1950s town beautifully, populating it with real life people whose lives we catch tiny glimpses into. They are all connected by the crashes, and always will be, no matter how much they resolve to carry on with their lives. The atmosphere is often quite claustrophobic, fearful and confused- living under Newark Airport seems to be a death sentence, but the action and the helplessness is always undercut with JB's time honoured trademark humanity, relateability and humour.

Whilst the three plane crashes, each one different but equally as tragic, provides the main thread of the book's plot, there's also a distinct focus on the drama of everyday life. We see characters that are manipulative, deluded, filled with secrets. We see friendships crumble and romances begin. There are people in denial, mental health struggles, divorces, hidden relatives, secret marriages. Even small towns have their dramas. It really mixes up the mundane and the extraordinary- there really is no such thing as normal and no perfect lifestyle. Blume has skilfully created this jigsaw puzzle of stories and events, overlapping lives and secrets against the backdrop of one of the biggest peace time aviation disasters. It's a very human novel that encompasses life in its entirety.

I was incredibly impressed with this novel and like Judy, I'm glad she wrote it before Phillip Roth, another Elizabeth native, got the chance to. I loved how the drama of such an extraordinary situation was contrasted with the drama of the everyday, domestic dramas that can be every bit as life-altering as a plane crash. I was completely gripped by Miri's narrative and loved her as a character. Seeing her in her 50s at the end of the novel is kind of bitter-sweet- she's made a comfortable life for herself and her family, but she's still tied to the events of that winter, like everybody else. Blume is a writer of such talent and heart. I really would recommend this book to fans of Anne Tyler and Kate Atkinson, for people who enjoy narratives that encompass the emotional complexity of multi-generational family dynamics but offer something more than scandal and soapy drama.

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