Once upon a time, when I was a child, epistolary novels such as this comprised letters from one or more correspondents, each to the other. Think Daddy Long Legs, 84 Charing Cross Road, and any number of others.
These days, of course, no one writes letters. It's all done through email. Alyson Foster's debut novel is none the worse for that.
The 107 emails are sent by Jess Frobisher to her erstwhile colleague and (we discover) former lover, Arthur Danielson. Jess is a university botany lecturer, with ongoing research into plant genes to discover their ability to withstand potential climate change. Danielson has taken off to the woods somewhere in North America to count pinecones and similarly reveal decreasing numbers of trees because of climate change.
Jess' husband Liam owns Spaceco, a space tourism business (this is a very modern novel). One March afternoon a space shuttle explodes 12 seconds after take-off, killing the two pilots and four passengers. Television and press news teams besiege Jess' home, while Liam takes off to the launch pad in Arizona to try to discover the cause of the disaster and limit the media attention.
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While he is away, Jess emails Arthur almost daily, as well as raising her two children and digging the foundations for an ever-increasing greenhouse.
Even as she dreams of gardenias and orchids, her world unravels, distancing her from Liam emotionally and spacially, and increasing her longing for Arthur.
Then she is given the chance to redeem herself and save her husband's company and her marriage.
And as if this isn't enough to contend with, a strange French documentary maker wants to film Jess and the children (and Liam, on his rare visits home), and try to reveal the story behind the explosion. A day in the life of a spaceman, if you like.
Reading a series of emails that are not one's own is generally perceived as impolite, but Foster manages to remove any voyeuristic element. Although Jess is the most clearly drawn character, finding an almost Zen-like state in the physical work of digging those greenhouse foundations, other characters do not suffer in comparison. Occasionally it is difficult to work out exactly what Arthur might have put in his replies, but for the most part Jess' emails carry the narrative more than adequately.
Without giving away the climax of the novel, it is enough to say that Foster's description of things most of us will never see or experience seem authentic and convincing. An active imagination is clearly at work here, and contributes to an excellent first novel.
God is an Astronaut
by Alyson Foster
(Allen & Unwin $36.99)