Review of The Aerialists by Katie Munnik (The Borough Press, HarperCollins 2022). Reviewed by Debra Martens.
The recent shooting down of four balloons in North American skies has made balloons a hot topic again (sorry, pun intended), but balloons, from hot air balloons to party balloons, have been there all along, and for longer than you might think. (Julian Barnes, in Levels of Life, writes that the first ascent in a hydrogen balloon was in 1783; the photo above is dated 1850s-1860s.) In the version popularized by Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, we think of a splendidly coloured balloon with a sturdy basket below it, bags of ballast hung decoratively, and flames somewhere over people’s shoulders to lend an air of danger. But balloons as flight were dangerous in the early days, and it comes as no surprise that the balloons now used for weather and science research are operated remotely, endangering no lives on board (until they are taken out by a NORAD missile and their fragments land in the throat of a duck).
All of this ballooning excitement is perfect timing, for it coincides with the publication of Katie Munnik’s third novel, The Aerialists, which is very much about balloons — or rather, the family business of balloons. Narrated by Laura, who is twelve at the novel’s opening in 1891 and recently orphaned, the story begins in Paris, when two members of the Charles Green Spencer and Sons of Highbury company, Marina and her husband Auguste Gaudron, have come to Paris to try to raise funds for the research branch of their ballooning endeavours. Marina, or Ena, spots Laura begging on the streets, and soon enough the couple have rescued her from the begging gang she was entrapped by after her mother’s death. I say rescue, but Laura says “bought,” as the Gaudrons had to give money to Laura’s keeper to gain her liberty. I say rescue, but my 2023 eyes read on to assure myself that this is not going to turn out badly for Laura (grooming, slavery, whatever). Be assured, it does not turn out badly for Laura, but her journey to adulthood and contentment is not exactly easy.
Laura’s narration is interrupted by an unidentified third-person narrator, who is so like Laura that I thought they were one and the same (both girls lie about their age, both are alone in the world, both aware of the graciousness of others and the beauty of the sky). Laura meets this narrator when the Gaudrons are invited to demonstrate their balloons at the Cardiff Fine Art Industrial and Maritime Exhibition of 1896. There one night Grace shows up at their boarding house, a young girl claiming that she met Auguste in Cornwall when he was flying at the fair and that he promised to help her learn to fly. She wants more than anything to fly.
Grace’s arrival casts suspicion on Auguste and the household as a whole. Laura is obliged to leave the boarding house, where she has been looking after the Gaudron baby when not sewing costumes or balloons, to take a room with Grace. As well, the departure of their previous flying girl, an American called Alma, puts things in a worse light. Laura seems oblivious to the scandalous aspect, and accepts it when Ena announces that she and Laura will no longer be flying girls — Laura thinks it is about the risqué costumes. She carries on, becoming ever more useful to the family but meanwhile falling for a certain young man who gardens at the Exhibition grounds, near to the shed where she works on the balloons.
There is much to learn about balloons in this novel, and at times I found the information could have benefited from some ballast going overboard. But it was interesting, too, to learn that balloons were made of silk, that the seams had to be checked and rechecked, that they fabric was varnished, that they could be filled in different ways, that the weather was indeed very important. The balloon that Gaudron demonstrates does not have a heavy basket. Rather, it has a cradle, below the balloon, from which the aerialist waves to the onlookers below. When it is time to get off, she or he uses a parachute, and they let the balloon land where it will. They come and collect it later. These details are in fact important to the novel’s turning point, and without them we could not understand Laura’s moral quandary. This historical novel permits us to see, from heights both low and high, into a time and place and lives that we might otherwise not have thought or known about.
Katie Munnik is a Canadian author who lives in Cardiff. Munnik moved to Wales in 2015, after having lived in London and Edinburgh. In 2017, she won the Borough Press Open Submission, and her debut novel, The Heart Beats in Secret was a USA Today Bestseller. Her second novel, The Aerialists, was published in April 2022 by the Borough Press. In Canada, the paperback will be released by HarperCollins in July 2023. Her prose, poetry, and creative non-fiction have been published in magazines, journals and newspapers in the UK and Canada. Katie Munnik is a graduate of Queen’s University, the University of St Andrews and the Humber School for Writers.
- While research or spy balloons may not be inherently dangerous, balloons have been used for more perfidious purposes, such as the Japanese Fu-Go balloon bombs sent over Canada in the Second World War, one of which did actually kill a woman and five children in Oregon (Mark Bourrie, “Balloon Bombardment,” The Globe and Mail, 18 Feb. 2023, 09).
- The slender volume by Julian Barnes, Levels of Life, gives many facts about early balloonists (Section I: The Sin of Height), which he then draws out as narratives (II: On the Level), which in turn serve as metaphors for his own grief (III: The Loss of Depth). He uses balloonists to find patterns for death and grief. (Vintage Books, 2014).
- Balloons have been used for weather prediction from their early days: “On 1 December 1783, Charles (1746-1822), the inventor of the hydrogen balloon, made an ascent from the Jardin des Tuileries, taking with him a barometer and a mercury thermometer.” In “Fifty Years Ago,” World Meteorological Association Bulletin, Vol 57 (1) – 2008.
- “Debris of suspected balloon may never be found in Yukon…,” CBC 20 February 2023.
- “FBI lab will get to the gust of Chinese ballloon….,” The Guardian, 18 February 2023.
- Excerpt of Munnik’s Long Sault Night Rain for 2018 CBC Poetry Prize longlist.
- “A Q&A with Katie Munnik, Author of The Heart Beats in Secret,” Humber .
- Historical Novel Society review of The Aerialists.
Header photo from the MET via Wiki Image Commons: -Stereograph_View_of_a_Hot_Air_Balloon-_MET_DP74755.jpg, 1850s-1860s. Gift of Weston J. Naef, in memory of Kathleen W. Naef and Weston J. Naef Sr., 1982