Airside by Christopher Priest (book review).

Christopher Priest is one of Britain’s leading literary novelists. Most of the time he flirts with SF, not producing wholly genre novels but coming up with new and satisfying approaches through the use of speculative elements. In his previous novel, ‘Expect Me Tomorrow’, he connected characters from the real past and a fictional future. Several of his other novels are set wholly or partly in the past. In ‘Airside’, all the scenes are set in the past. But this is mostly a fictional past or perhaps a parallel world.

His protagonist is Justin Farmer (born in England in 1944, a year later than Priest), whom we follow for fifty years as he becomes a film critic and film historian. Throughout his life, Farmer is obsessed with US Hollywood actress and star Jeanette Marchand who, as the novel’s first chapter and dustjacket inform us, flies to London at the height of her fame in 1949 (aged 37) and disappears completely somewhere between the aircraft and the airport buildings. This is very much a novel about films, including review articles by Farmer on the real 1933 film of ‘King Kong’ with Fay Wray and the fictional film ‘La Jetee’ (1962), which is important to Farmer because he is very much affected by it and because his life seems to be tied to that film at one point.

  ‘Airside’ is a complex novel, made difficult to review by its subtleties. It mixes reality with fiction, for example, by referring to the real Munich air crash of 1958 in which Manchester United footballers and support staff died and mentioning important real film stars, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, James Cagney and Cary Grant among others. For well detailed reasons, Farmer becomes obsessed with flying and with airports. There is a wonderfully surreal scene in which Farmer is trying to find his way around a South Korean airport and seems to slip into ‘La Jetee’. Although the novel is told in the third person rather than Farmer narrating, it doesn’t mean that the events are really happening to him.

Farmer is a detailed and very plausible character. We get lots of scenes of his schooldays and first flight, for example. The film material connected with his profession is extremely well-researched and convincingly made up.

So this is a very clever novel, an exciting blend of fact and fiction. The initial mystery, the disappearance of Jeanette Marchand, is important throughout the novel and to Farmer’s life and work. He saw two of her early films when he was only seven years-old and they may well have determined his career. It’s wonderful that Priest manages to write something completely different in theme, setting and approach in every one of his novels.

Chris Morgan

July 2023

(pub: Gollancz, 2023. 297 page hardback. Price: £22.00 (UK).ISBN: 978-1-399-0883 1)

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