If my reading habits for the last few weeks were all you had to go off when assessing my personality – Shuggie Bain, The Chronology of Water, The Discomfort of Evening, and now Astral Travel – you might worry for whatever terrible secrets my childhood might have held. It was healthy, I promise. Jo, Cathy, and David Jackson’s was not. Oppressed under the violent anger of their father Patrick and left unprotected by their thoroughly doormatted mother Gwen, the three children are roughly dragged up in impoverished, abusive circumstances. David has it easier, of course, once Patrick decides to acknowledge his maleness and mould him in his image.
After the death of her father, Jo decides to write a novel about him. In spite of the beatings, the shouting, and the neglect, she is desperate to learn more about the man who remained a secret to her for her entire life, perhaps even find the trigger for his bottomless rage. During her research Jo finds herself shocked all over again at the complacency and delusion of her mother, the apathy of her sister, and the mimicry of her brother. As she presses further and the truth is finally discovered, Jo is presented with an entirely new vision of her father, and must come to terms with his behaviour all over again.
Astral Travel is expertly crafted. Each character is that perfect mix of normal-with-a-dash-of-fascinating to make them feel completely human, with Jo’s impressively genuine voice knitting the frayed, second-hand narrative strands together so deftly that I frequently had to remind myself that I was reading a work of fiction, and not a memoir. Baines’ prose is both intricately beautiful and abruptly brutal, with every word balancing precariously on the undercurrent of rage that flows throughout the novel. She depicts the damp grey of poverty, the white hot of anger, the explosive orange of indignation, and the flush purple of secrecy with indisputable talent and flair. When I received the book, I was warned that it was a touch on the lengthy side. I did not feel this length. There was not a point during my reading experience in which I felt like I was simply enduring the incoming words. I greedily consumed every paragraph, and yearned for more free time when I had to put the book down to do something inconsequential like work or sleep.
There is, of course, a but. It’s not a big but, but it’s a but nonetheless. Unfortunately, the answer to the riddle of Patrick Jackson is not nearly as satisfying as the riddle itself. This may be intentional on Baines’ part, symbolic of the futility of attempting to understand one’s abuser, but it does not eliminate the little harumph that escaped me when I realised where I was being led. It was disheartening to reach the end and find that the blindingly obvious, borderline problematic explanation, the very explanation which I desperately hoped a work as intelligent as this would not resort to, was being presented to me as if it was a gotcha! moment and not something which insipid teen dramas frequently used for their season finales. Here’s a tip: if your big plot twist is a common prompt for fanfiction writers, consider using something else.
I do admit, however, that I find it hard to truly take issue with this novel for only its ending. My overall experience of reading Astral Travel was so enjoyable that this brief stint of disappointment I felt is easily overshadowed by my admiration for the novel as a whole. I can’t remember the last time a work of fiction aroused such sympathy and indignant anger in me.
Any Cop?: A slightly unimaginative ending does not undo an entire novel’s worth of excellence. Astral Travel is still one of the most memorable and brilliant books I’ve read this year. I will be eagerly seeking out Baines’ other work, and would recommend that anyone who is interested in solid storytelling, organic characters, and incisive prose do the same.