On January 26, I gave a talk at Village Books titled, “Lab Lit: Putting Real Science Into Fiction.” Included in the list of more than 20 novels and biographies was The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt. I spent more time on Goldschmidt’s book than many others because I believe it represents “fiction about science” especially well. Because the novel is not yet available in the US, the publisher, Freight Books, was kind enough to send me free copies, which I decided to give away to the first two people who agreed to write a review for me to post on this blog. The first review, by Hank Kastner, appears in this post.
The Falling Sky is about a “realistic scientist doing realistic science.” That is the hook that brought me to this special first novel written by a PhD astronomer, now a recognized writer in Edinburgh, Scotland. But it is so much more than that.
One could say this is the insightful story of a young woman finding her way from adolescence into a life of her own; or her personal contemporary tale of sexual awakening and relationships with other women; or a striking and remarkable exploration of how a scientist’s unique perspective can literally saturate the way she perceives and interacts with everything around her; or an emotionally wrenching journey with a family trying to make sense of a pointless and tragic death. It is really all of that.
That may seem to be quite a burden to place on an easy-reading first novel of only 264 pages; but Goldschmidt succeeds gracefully and does not overreach. Her story of Jeanette comfortably weaves modest measures of these elements together – and tempts the reader to fold closed the pages, finger inserted, while looking off into space to savor the author’s words and Jeanette’s thoughts. In that sense, this is not a “quick read.”
There is fuel here for artists, romantics, philosophers, mystics, feminists, photographers and scientists alike. Those familiar with Edinburgh are teased with pleasing glimpses.
But for one so inclined to the feast, it is possible to see the scientific perspective virtually everywhere in this story; in its language, metaphors, analogies, repetition of certain words and its oblique references to black holes, cosmology, time scales, anti-matter, entropy. Some may see excess or stridency in this; for those it should be accepted as essential emersion in Jeanette’s world, as setting and mood, and not as cause for anxiety or fear of missing something. There is more to savor.
Storytelling here is not linear, but not distracting: chapters alternate between “Now” and “Then” as the 3rd person narrative traces Jeanette’s young life as an astronomer while we gradually learn more of her adolescent past. She is smart & ambitious, yet confused. She is a talented and intelligent scientist whose rational lense often fails her in navigating the human world of relationships. She is an emotional creature like all of us, and it wrenches her life. The reader is drawn in as she searches.