Picture this: a plane gliding over London's Richmond suburb, headed for Heathrow, releases its landing gear.
Out of the narrow space behind the wheels hurtles a stowaway: he streaks through the remaining strip of sky and crash-lands on the roof of a parked car, crumpling it like tinfoil.
So begins Kate Pullinger's 10th novel, Landing Gear, and the action barely takes a breather after this punchy opening.
Pullinger, who won the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction for 2009's The Mistress of Nothing, is a pro when it comes to readable yet provocative fiction, and her powers are in evidence here.
Inspired by a newspaper article about landing-gear stowaways published in The Guardian in 2001, Landing Gear takes as its primary conceit the possibility that such stowaways can occasionally survive the dreadful fall.
Yacub, a slender, soft-spoken Pakistani migrant worker escaping a Dubai labour camp, is the stowaway in question. The car he hits belongs to Harriet, a middle-aged reporter obsessively stocking up on supermarket provisions. She is still smarting from her husband Michael's brief but disastrous affair; her teenaged son Jack is slipping between family silences into dangerous adolescent crises.
Post-crash, Harriet brings the miraculously unharmed Yacub home for a few days, little guessing the impact his presence will have on her fractured family.
Another thing Harriet does not know: she is being tailed by the mysterious Emily, a young documentary filmmaker who has caught Yacub's fall on camera.
Landing Gear slips neatly into a chick-lit niche, cover design and all (woman in a pretty outfit, ethereal motif), but its tenor isn't precisely light. In places, the novel's style is reminiscent of Northern Irish novelist Maggie O'Farrell (The Distance Between Us, Instructions for a Heat Wave). Like O'Farrell, Pullinger is concerned with the complex connections between atomized individuals: What pulls people apart? What draws them together? The answers, Landing Gear suggests, are unpredictable.
Pullinger maintains a detached, descriptive tone through much of the novel, which occasionally creates the effect that Landing Gear is a sort of emotional research project. Too much "tell" versus "show" weighs down the story in places ("Mallory had Peter when she was in her early 20s. She'd been a single parent; Peter was grown now, near the end of his medical training").
Sometimes mundane repetition, rather than adding to an atmosphere of general malaise in Harriet's household, becomes annoying -- for example, the reader is reminded over three times in the span of 30 pages that Michael "came home late and left early every day." Most readers don't need to be told this kind of thing twice to get the general idea.
But the ending of Landing Gear takes the whole project up a mighty notch. One by one, each of the characters is invited to tell the story in his or her own voice, documentary-style.
"Turn the camera on, I'm ready," says Yacub. "Come on," says Harriet, "let's do this thing." Jack asks, "What do you want me to talk about?"
Finally unleashed, their voices are remarkable, full of nuance and colour. Pullinger's writing is at its strongest when she gets out of the way and lets her characters speak for themselves.
Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based writer and editor.