Before the Fall | Noah Hawley | 2016 (9 June) | Hodder & Stoughton | 390p | Review copy | Buy the book
One summer’s night, the private plane of media tycoon David Bateman takes off from holiday island Martha’s Vineyard to make the brief flight to New York City. On board are Bateman and his young wife Maggie, their two children Rachel and JJ, Bateman’s bodyguard Gil, millionaire couple Ben and Sarah Kipling, a struggling artist Scott Burroughs, and the crew of three. When the plane dives into the sea just a few minutes after take off, only Scott and the Bateman son JJ survive. But surviving the plane crash was just the first hurdle. Scott, injured, must swim himself and this four-year-old child ten, fifteen miles, in a feat that will astound the world as the tragedy hits the media.
It only takes a brief perusal of the passenger list to spot that Scott is the odd one out. Not wealthy by any means, hardly used to taking a private jet, Scott thought himself lucky to be invited by the lovely Maggie to fly with them. Scott had an exhibition in New York to make, maybe his last chance to get his work noticed, Maggie’s invitation, offered at the farmer’s market after his work caught her eye, could be the first sign of the luck in store for him. But not luck at all. Rather a terrible disaster and tragedy, for the dead of course but also for the two survivors who must deal with the consequences, the trauma, the unwelcome attention, the isolation, the grief and the endless questions.
The opening of Before the Fall is powerful indeed. There’s not much that’s normal about the enormously privileged Bateman family and the Kiplings but it’s normal to them – shamefully so in Maggie’s and Sarah Kipling’s eyes – and it’s about to explode into terror and death. The novel makes it clear that these are the last few minutes of their lives and later on we’re reminded that the worst of horrors come out of the known and the familiar. The actions of Scott are undoubtedly heroic and like JJ, the little boy, now an orphan, who clings to this stranger for his life, we are drawn tightly to Scott. We are always on his side, whatever happens. He’s done more than enough.
Before the Fall is utterly engrossing. The pace never drops, the urgency of the questions surrounding the crash constantly demand answers, the media’s attention grows ever more intrusive, the investigation of the FBI and flight accident agents becomes increasingly pressured and tense. Everybody in the world wants to know who Scott is. Why was he on the plane? He has become everyone else’s business. And this is a big reason why Before the Fall is such a successful, accomplished novel – it is as much character-driven as it is action-driven.
The novel investigates each of the passengers and crew in turn, moving to and fro in time, always ending up on the plane, throwing up mysteries, scandal, in many of their lives, any of which fascinates the hungry media and their viewers and listeners. Everyone is on trial. Scott is of particular interest and he must deal with what this means. While the novel goes back and spends time with the dead, there are other parts of the book in which we exist in the present with Scott, watching him express himself through his art, trying to fit this disaster into his life. My only issue was that I wished we were given more time with Scott and JJ – this extraordinary, almost sacrosanct relationship lies at the heart of the novel and it is so well drawn.
Noah Hawley is a screenwriter as well as a novelist. He has a wonderful eye. But he also writes beautifully. Before the Fall is a fantastic novel, scrutinising people just as much as it depicts disaster. I think it could have gone even further, deeper into the histories of everyone involved. But then it would have been a very long novel indeed. There is so much scope here and we are given far more than I demand from a thriller. For me, Before the Fall is the thriller to beat this year.
Incidentally, I’ve been to Martha’s Vineyard – I’m glad I took the ferry. This book did nothing for my flying phobia!