Landing Gear by Kate Pullinger, Doubleday Canada 2014, hardcover 286 pages.
Reviewed by Debra Martens.
Visiting a neighbourhood like Richmond, you think: What a nice place to live. Then a plane flies overhead. The invasive noise erases all thoughts from your head, so that a few minutes later, you think: What a nice place to live — and then it happens again, the plane coming in to land. Standing under a plane’s flight path, I could understand the opposition to a third runway at Heathrow. Kate Pullinger doesn’t mention the third runway in her seventh novel, Landing Gear, but she does write about the day planes stopped landing because of the volcanic ash from Iceland in 2010. The main protagonist is Harriet, who walks out one morning to a world “entirely different”: “Richmond had emerged from beneath the flight path. The air was sparkling, The sky was silent, completely silent.” (p. 13)
Landing Gear is told in three parts, in addition to a Prologue and Epilogue. Each part has about thirty sections that switch point of view between characters. That the story is told in segments may have to do with its origins as a digital tale. In fact, the simple, yet poetic, sentences in the Prologue come from Flight Paths: A Networked Novel. (“Freezing hot, then burning cold. Suddenly I am released.”)
The digital novel is the story of Yacub’s time in a labour camp in Dubai and his departure from Karachi as a stowaway on a flight that drops him into a Richmond supermarket car park. According to the Author’s Note, part of Richmond has had more than one person dropped from the landing gear. Most plane stowaways die, either crushed or frozen or oxygen-deprived. See Guardian links below.
The Prologue is cut with Harriet’s voice in the present tense of 2012, and the moment that the two voices come together (“Dark Mass”), when she sees Yacub fall from the sky as the plane prepares to land. The print novel, Landing Gear, is about what happens afterwards, and it asks us to consider: what is family?
What happens after Yacub falls is told with the seriousness and absurdity of a dream. Harriet watches him fall in stunned shock, letting go of her shopping cart. He totals the roof of her car, then sits up, asks if he’s dead, retrieves her trolley, and says he is “starving.” Harriet calls a taxi. We find out in Part Two, “Flying Man,” that she loads both the man and the groceries into the taxi and takes them home — where she tries to keep him a secret, in a small room off the kitchen. Like another secret she has kept, it becomes too late to tell.
“How do you tell someone that a man fell out of the sky and onto your car, like a Pakistani David Bowie, and that you felt compelled to bring him home with you and hide him, even though you weren’t entirely sure if he was dead or alive?” (159)
Yacub falls into a family that is falling apart. As we learn in Part One, “Ash Cloud Idyll,” Harriet’s husband Michael, an actuary who went to New York for work, had a fling in Toronto (he is Canadian) while waiting for the volcanic ash flights to resume. Their teenage son Jack goes swiftly from trying his first joint to being suspended from school. Harriet is being secretly filmed by a 24 year-old Emily (television researcher), whom Harriet is in turn secretly stalking on Facebook.
Harriet takes advantage of the absence of colleagues stuck abroad by cancelled flights to relaunch her television career. Indirectly it is because of Emily that Harriet’s job comes to a crashing end.
“After Harriet lost her job, she concentrated mostly on the things she did badly: shopping for food, parenting Jack, cleaning the house, staying in shape, being married. Some of these things she did more badly than others—being married, for instance.” (146)
Two years later, when Yacub enters their lives, Harriet is still unemployed, Michael and Harriet barely speak to each other, and Jack, now sixteen, is aware of no longer needing his mother. Yacub’s arrival allows for funny moments, such as when Jack first encounters Yacub: “Maybe he’s a burglar, Jack thought, some kind of weird petrol-addict burglar who instead of taking your cash and jewellery, moves in.” Yacub says, “Please don’t tell your mother you can see me. She thinks I’m dead.” (145) Through both comedic and life-threatening moments they welcome Yacub into their home and they help him. Is that the end of the story? No, because Yacub is not the story. Yacub is the deus ex machina whose fall from the sky snaps the tensions separating Harriet from Michael, Jack from his parents, and Emily from Harriet. Because of Yacub’s fall, Harriet’s family restores itself.
Part Three (“Nuclear Families”) shifts the point of view to Emily. I cannot reveal who Emily is, because that would spoil the mystery of the book and of Emily’s film documentary, the script of which forms the Epilogue. While Yacub’s fall has an important parallel to Emily’s life, I was disappointed to have the novel end with her rather than Harriet.
A funny and compassionate novel, Landing Gear has much to appeal to multi-tasking mid-lifers with teens. And to expats: Harriet’s husband Michael is a Canadian living in England. His musings make a good ending to this review as well as casting a light on his character, which is defined mostly by absence.
“He’d lived abroad for so long that the word alone—“Canada”—was enough to tip him into a warm pool of nostalgia. Canada.” (34)
“While Michael was in Toronto, he watched CBC news and listened to CBC radio; he read The Globe and Mail and National Post newspapers; he bought The Walrus magazine. He watched Hockey Night in Canada with Marina. He measured his Canadian pulse, his Canadian heart rate. It beat on, as regular as ever. He wasn’t sure what exactly made him Canadian, but the unexpected week in Toronto confirmed it: he was.” (113)
“If there is an advantage to leaving where you come from and making your life somewhere new, it is that you can leave your past behind. … The disadvantage to leaving where you come from and making your life somewhere new is that once enough years have passed, the new place is no longer new, and you find yourself burdened with a past after all.” (179)
That word “burdened” forces the reader to question whether Michael is as much a part of his family as his 18 year-old working son Jack, or Yacub, or Emily.
- 11 January 2016 A man who fell from a plane onto a rooftop in Richmond has possibly been identified. Amazingly, this January 11, 2016 Guardian article reports that his stowaway companion survived the -50C temperatures and after a stay in hospital is being “cared for in the community” (author Ben Quinn quoting Metropolitan Police).
- Approximately 200,000 people live in Richmond, compared to the 200,000 passengers arriving and departing every day from Heathrow. For Heathrow traffic, see Heathrow Operational Data.
- June 2015 article in the Guardian on stowaways.
- 2001 article in the Guardian on stowaways.
- Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott, another novel about a rescuing woman.