Brian Jessel, a civil servant in Great Britain’s Cabinet Office, has been asked to research the mysterious case of Stephen Summerchild, who fell to his death at Admiralty offices fifteen years ago. What was Summerchild, along with Oxford don and philosopher Elizabeth Serafin, investigating for the government? What great secret led to his death, and why is the BBC interested in re-opening the case, which was ruled a suicide?
These questions are at the heart of Michael Frayn’s newest novel, A Landing on the Sun. Life in the Cabinet revolves around a comfortable routine for Jessel until he is asked to investigate Summerchild’s case. At the beginning of the book, Jessel briefly describes his working environment: “There’s nothing personal about this place. That’s why I feel so much at home here.”
That sentence sets the tone of the book. Jessel, like Summerchild – and perhaps, Frayne insinuates, all government workers – prefers the impersonal nature of work in government offices. But for Jessel, the impersonal becomes personal as he is reluctantly led into Summerchild and Serafin’s secret life and work. As these three lives slowly unravel in the past and the present, the central question of the story is revealed: “Is the world of the happy man, as Wittgenstein declared, different from the world of the unhappy man?”
As Serafin and Summerchild investigate the quality of happiness, they examine their own lives in a much more personal way than they had expected and reach a surprising conclusion. This is a highly philosophical book about the mutable quality of happiness, and how Summerchild’s life and death affected Jessel’s personal and professional futures. A Landing on the Sun is at times both sad as well as darkly comic; don’t read too quickly, or you will miss some wonderfully subtle humorous moments. Frayn adeptly balances the darkness of the book and the humor with great care, though the narrative never feels contrived or wooden. Though at times the pace of the text seems slow, A Landing on the Sun is a finely crafted, thoughtful read.