Michael, Jack, and Harriet, are a middle-class suburban West London family. All are "addictive personalities" of sorts. The most tormented is Jack, a true wayward son who clearly loves his parents but has turned to drugs to alleviate boredom. Everything about this family’s life feels out of place, from Michael’s business trip to New York, on which he becomes stranded by the volcanic eruptions in Iceland, to the constant sense of dissociation that Harriet feels over her career in radio.
Over an initial period of six days in April 2010, the volcanic events at Eyjafjallajökull cause enormous disruption to air travel across western and northern Europe. The eruption presents Harriet with an opportunity and perhaps a way to act on her long dormant but still-present desire to get back into television reporting.
In New York for meetings at the headquarters of his firm, Michael sees the images of the ash cloud and watches the stories about people stranded around the world and unable to get home. He decides to wait it out in Toronto, staying with Marina, his oldest friend. Having lived abroad for so long, going to Canada is enough to tip Michael into “a warm pool of nostalgia.” Meanwhile, back at home, everyone is startled by the absence of air traffic over West London. Anyone who lives there fails to be anything other than amazed by the effect of the planes stopping.
Pullinger uses this volcanic event as a catalyst for change. There’s Yacub, a worker left stranded in hot and grimy Dubai, forced to suffer in the dust of an abandoned labor camp, and a girl called Emily who wonders about her birth parents and has often considered doing something to find them. Now that her father has gone, Emily can finally fill in that birth-parent search form without worrying about hurting him.
Harriet is probably never going to have the star career she fantasizes about, but she is the life and soul of her family, and she clearly loves Jack until Yacub falls out of the sky over her West London shopping center. Harriet can scarcely bring herself to think about it. “Am I dead?” she says. Yacub however, proves to be far from a cold, dead man, coming into Harriet’s life as though falling from heaven itself, “an angel without wings.”
Moving between the voices of Harriet, Michael, Jack, Yacub and Emily, what could have been a dreary run-of-the-mill story—a bleak family saga steeped in a world of miraculous survival, of infidelity, of secret adoptions, and drug overdoses—is saved by a light touch and hope for the future. Time heals and inevitably passes, allowing for new growth as these people plunge off the putative cliff and try to fly, at least in spirit. Pullinger glides over the years, creating an emotional palette that culminates in Emily’s video project, a film about Harriet and “the falling man,” and how Yacub flew like a genie, a cat with nine lives.
Exploring how our private online lives can become very public fodder, “this rich, complex set of secret realms,” Pullinger’s novel is a bit underwhelming though her prose has occasional moments of sparkling grace. More successful and less distracting is her exploration of the fragility of marriage, the accumulation of years, of experiences, of disappointments and ambitions both failed and achieved.