In Sadie Jones’s most original and emotionally piercing book to date, Fallout takes its name from the redemptive powers of love and its ability to melt even the chilliest of hearts. Exploring the vibrant theatrical world of London in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Jones’s explores familial and romantic love—a love that is lost and then found again. Relying heavily on real-life theatrical allusions for its power, Fallout is a story that showcases Jones’s strengths as a writer, creating a potent portrait of a beautiful, neurotic actress, an earthy, aspiring writer, and their urgent yearning to find some sense of purpose.
In Seston, Lincolnshire, in 1961, Luke Kanowski visits his French mother, currently ensconced in Seston Asylum. At night he must tolerate Tomasz, his broken-down, disappointed father tied to cigarettes and the vodka bottle. Frustrated but also full of hope, Luke’s love for literature and for theatre is stultified by his insular, parochial life and his invalid parents, the tiny house, the labyrinthine hospital, and a “dead-end job at a local paper mill.”
On a trip to London to visit the National Gallery, Luke unwittingly passes Nina Hollings. Full of sporadic joy, Nina has talked about drama school with her mother, Marianne. Marianne, an aspiring actress herself, wants Nina to come with her to Paris, a battle for territory fought severely with suburban Aunt Mat, who can’t seem to control her rebellious niece. Coaching her daughter for auditions, Marianne is well aware that Nina has a “Natalie Wood look” and an “unspoiled countenance.” Thus begin the years of hard work that will culminate with Nina becoming one of London’s most beautiful stage actresses.
The action unfolds between 1961 and 1975, a period of turbulence in London’s theatre history. From top to bottom, there’s an endless supply of humanity, “the living and dead-heaped detritus of everyday life.” London in 1968 is especially in full bloom: the Post Office Tower “is rising sky high” while the streets beneath are full of bowler hats and miniskirts. Bars and pubs “rattle through the gentility” while Soho’s basements burst at the seams with music. Into the cross-currents of “the seedy rain coated old guard” is “the up-yours sex and post-war boozing.”
Nina (now Nina Jacobs) is on a “lipstick and coffee diet.” Pushed by ever-ambitious Marianne, Nina finishes her years at LAMDA and begins looking for work in the West End theatres. Luke, meanwhile, is introduced to “know-it-all producer” Paul Driscoll and his friend Leigh Radley, who have ostensibly come to Seston to meet a local playwright. The introduction (like “a flashbulb moment”) is tied to Luke’s realization that his life in Seton is actually harming him. Newly-born in London, there’s not a word spoken between Luke and Paul: “whatever it was they were looking for, they were in it together.”
Soon enough, 1972 arrives. Luke and Paul call their new theatre company “Graft” and work hard to craft and cultivate new and serious dramatic works. Gravitating between lively hope and pleasure, Luke is at first drawn to Leigh’s prospect of raw, sweet kindness, then to Nina, who has recently gained fame and fortune as a gorgeous and vulnerable muse to West End star producer Tony Moore.
Imbued with passion, fury, and Luke’s ultimate betrayal (which brings the novel’s title full circle), the drama in Fallout beckons us to look back at English society undergoing a profound sea-change. The novel homes in on the theatrical politics during the early days of the sexual revolution, a movement characterized by Luke and Nina’s affair—an affair that threatens Nina’s fragile marriage to Tony and almost derails restless Luke’s artistic hunger. Nina is driven by the desire to stay loyal to Tony though he proves to be a calculating, cruel and sexually ambivalent individual. Nina certainly can’t tell Luke how she has struck a “corrupt bargain” with Tony.
Everything is in danger of being spoiled when Nina thoughtlessly runs from Tony (and from Marianne) into Luke’s arms. As Luke and Nina face questions of love, art, and the dangers of fulfilling their dreams, Jones gives us an often funny and passionate look at what it takes succeed, including the perpetual schmoozing with investors, producers, directors and fans. As we witness Paul’s backbreaking work to get his beloved fringe theater off the ground, Jones focuses on the universal question: What choices set us on our individual paths in life?
We eventually see Nina grow into one kind of woman and then another, strangely vulnerable and immutable in her rise to stardom. We also admire Luke’s need to become a writer at all costs. Some of the most affecting sections of the book come when an artistically troubled Luke is unable to be with the woman he desires. Jones’s snapshots attest to her ability to give us an intimate sense of Nina, Luke, Paul, and even Leigh’s interior worlds while also exploring their hopes and dreams and disappointments within the context of a theatrical history that is gradually slipping by.