There’s something intriguingly slapdash about Pauline Melville’s new novel, Eating Air. It begins with the narrator briefly introducing himself , – and then the curtains raise and for 407 pages we’re jumping from character to character, scene to scene, at a pace that is exhilarating (if slightly dizzying). Melville has created the literary equivalent of a Cirque de Soleil performance given by middle-aged political radicals who have managed to live long enough to know better. Her novel is intense, convoluted, serious in its’ subject matter and carefully plotted. Yet it still manages to feel unrehearsed, capricious and effortless. Somehow, Eating Air comes across as light and insubstantial as… well… air. It’s quite an accomplishment.
The writing, by itself, is startlingly beautiful.
Many years later, when Hector looked back on the way they all gambled so freely with their lives – tossing cigarette packs, cartridges and grenades between each other as casually as if they were fielding in a ball game – he reflected on how those brushes with death seemed to give the young fighters an airy elegance and lightness that made them almost skyborne – as if they were eating air. Fleet, breathtaking decisions were taken easily with a light heart and unshakeable certainty. They were not weighed down with personal plans. They possessed nothing. Hector wondered whether that lightness existed amongst them all because they had no future.
Of course, the reader soon finds that this absence of a future has been grossly exaggerated.
Eating Air is told in three parts. The first and third parts take place in present-day. We are introduced to a group of former political radicals from the 1970’s, long after the dust their actions once stirred has settled. Some have been imprisoned, some fled the country or went on to lead armed and militant factions. The acts they committed were more blips on the map than the beginnings of the revolution they’d expected. Most realize that and have gone on to build lives, but a few haven’t let go of their dreams. All miss the sense of purpose their lives once had. Gradually fate brings them back together.
Part two of the novel flashes back to London in the 1970’s. We meet Ella deVries, a half-Surinamese dancer for the Royal Ballet. We learn about how she met the love of her life, Donny McLeod, and how they became absorbed into this group of British radicals. Both are on the fringe, and their participation in events is more of an afterthought than an act of political engagement. Ella dances and loves Donny. Donny creates mayhem wherever he goes. In theory, they (their class) would be the ones to benefit from the revolution, or so they are told. But they remain aloof and distrustful.
While Eating Air contains the fairly in-depth stories of multiple characters (I stopped counting at 18) Ella and Donny are central to the book, often the catalysts setting events into motion. Yet their role was difficult to place. They never quite fit into the big picture I thought Melville was trying to draw – but they continually make appearances in the stories of other characters. Both actively and passively. It is the Acknowledgements at the end of the book that gives a hint of what Pauline Melville is attempting to do:
If Euripides were around I hope he would excuse my loose re-working of themes from The Bacchae. I also acknowledge standing on the shoulders of many other authors who have given us versions of Venus and Adonis.
I’ll give you another clue: Where Donny goes, pandemonium and Ella follow. Ella is usually dancing.
The classical themes on which the author has based her novel are used with such subtlety that without the Acknowledgement the reader might never have made a connection. But once you have read those lines, and brush up a little on the classics, it becomes so glaring that you can’t believe anyone could read this book without knowing. Personally, I adore books that give that extra gift. That can be read and enjoyed without knowing their secret, but once it is revealed become entirely new books. Eating Air is the story of revolutionaries and terrorists in two different periods of history. It is also the metaphorical story of what is at the basis of such acts and of how such acts can occur. It is fable, farce (laugh out loud funny) and tragedy all rolled together.
If an author writes well enough, he or she can get away with a lot. In that sense Melville is fortunate. Eating Air has flaws, but they can be easily overlooked in the face of such skillful manipulation of language. If the relationships between characters feels too coincidental, almost incestuous, it can be argued that she’s focusing on a specific group of people whose lives are intertwined. If the book seems to contain too much, that some of the plot lines seem arbitrary and unneccessary to the overall novel, well you can say that had the book been edited with a heavier hand the whimsical rhythm of the prose could have been lost. In my mind, Eating Air is such a unique and special book that it is necessary to embrace it exactly as it is.
Pauline Melville has written two other novels, a short story collection, won several awards and has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. I’d be surprised if Eating Air doesn’t receive the same kind of recognition. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s available in the States, and I’m not sure when it will be. At least I haven’t been able to find it. I’m almost embarrassed to say (after all the gushing I’ve done about this book) that I received my copy as an ARC from the kind people at Telegram Books, London. The Ventriloquist’s Tale and Shape-Shifter have both been published by Bloomsbury USA.