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In front of me lay two human hands
They say the first line of a book should be a cracker to get you hooked. Using this theory Landing on the Sun by Michael Frayn certainly had the potential to be an interesting read. However I was not sure at first whether I would enjoy it or not.
Brian Jessel is a civil servant working in Whitehall. His main task throughout the book is to investigate the mysterious death of another civil servant Stephen Summerchild that happened in 1974. Summerchild was working on a top secret mission alongside the shadowy figure of Professor Serrafin. Jessels life intertwines with Summerchilds as Jessel played in an orchestra alongside Summerchilds daughter Millie and Jessel had a brief encounter with Summerchild just before he died. The book follows Jessel as he pieces together Summerchilds final project during the last months of his life.
This simplified plot summary describes a book I would not enjoy at all. It suggests murder mystery, thriller, spies and espionage. I hate all of them!! However there is more to this book than meets the eye. It has real human emotions such as humour and tragedy.
The humour comes from Serrafin and Summerchilds working relationship in the Strategic Unit. It is implied that the original brief is to compete with the Americans recent moon landing by landing on the sun and harnessing its power (as the tittle of the book suggests). Serrafin gets the wrong end if the stick about the mission and thinks the unit has been set up to investigate Standards of living. What ensues is fairly witty.
Serrafin is a philosopher not a civil servant and uses unconventional presentation methods. Inserted of writing conventional reports full of clauses and subsections and conclusions she writes informal waffly letters to the Prime Minster as if she was writing to a close friend or relative. I found her recounting mundane and unimportant bits of family list quite hilarious.
Her discussions with Jessel are also amazing. Whilst he interprets Standard and Quality of Life to pertain to consumer items such as washing machines she takes a more philosophical line. She questions what it truly means to be happy. Having studied philosophy I found these conversations quite interesting. When you say I am happy with that are you truly ecstatic or are you just saying I agree? Do we use some words to much, or is that taking the question too literally?
As the project continues Summerchild and Jessels quality of life is enhanced by making their mundane disused office into a little paradise. They buy things such as plants, decorations and even an inflatable bed. At this point the work of the Strategic Unit became farcical.
There is comedy but there is also sadness and tragedy in the lives of the characters in the book. Like many people most of them seem to be dull, mundane and perhaps a little unfufilling and lonely. I felt sorry for Summerchild when he confessed to Serrafin that he could only identify one occasion during a power cut when he and his family played a musical piece when he could describe himself as truly happy. I found this very poignant However it is Jessel that I really feel sorry for. At 17 he had a blossoming relationship with Millie Summerchild but her fathers death broke that up. Jessel then married and had a child but his wife at the time of the book has had some kind of breakdown and is institutionalised. The book did not go into detail about how Jessel met his wife and I found myself intrigued about what happened between her.
I found the intertwining of the characters effective. However I also found it at times confusing, The book is written in the first person with Jessel as the narrator. However the book would slip into other characters perspectives. I found this difficult as I was wondering if this was what actually happened or if it was Jessels take on what he had imagined happened. This was hard to get used to at first.
I found the pace of the book just about right. I found myself involved with the story and wanted to know how the events unfolded as Jessel pieced together the evidence about Summerchilds death.
Landing on the Sun was not my choice of book as it was one I had to read for my book Group. However I found to my surprise that I actually quite like the book. It was not the best book I had read but I found that the mixture of farce, tragedy and philosophy a fairly rewarding read.
Have you ever read a book you love but been clueless about the origins of its title? “A Landing on the Sun” is one of those books for me. (The title has probably got some allegorical significance that I’m completely ignorant about. If you know, please let me in on it. The only explanation I can find for the title of this novel is its interest in the shiny roofs of government buildings where the tiles aren’t the only things to get hot.) “A Landing on the Sun” is the story of Jessel, a civil servant who seems quite satisfied with his job, which as the novel begins, is to report on the Annual Assessment of Departmental Efficiency. The orderly world of his work, with its neat files and sensible, accurate minutes is certainly a comfort to him, contrasting as it does with the chaos of his household; an institutionalised wife, an emotionally unstable son, an over-apologetic mother-in-law. If all this sounds tedious, depressing and exactly the opposite of what you consider to be a good read, please don’t stop reading this opinion yet! Jessel’s tidy work environment is topsy-turvied when he is asked to investigate the possibly mysterious circumstances of the death of Stephen Summerchild, a fellow civil servant who is apparently even more civil and servile than Jessel, in the mid-seventies. This brings work and home into uncomfortably close quarters, reminding him of a childish pursuit of Summerchild’s daughter, and he gradually realises that there are more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of…, well if not in his philosophy, at least in the dusty turrets of Westminster. The so-called mystery surrounding Summerchild’s death becomes fairly quickly apparent to the reader, and it is Jessel’s alternately naïve and wilful misreading of events which provides us with our entertainment. Gradually – and clumsily, reluctantly, pompously, irritatingly and very funnily ̵
1; Jessel comes to terms with what he discovers in a series of transcripts of taped conversations between Summerchild and his director in the "Strategy Unit", Dr Serafin. Sometimes the boundaries blur - disconcerting for us, but surely one civil servant’s life is much the same as another’s? – so that Jessel cannot distinguish between himself and the subject of his inquiry. Sometimes he seems to be on the brink of overcoming his emotional impotence – disconcerting for him, longed for by us. Just when I’m beginning to sympathise with the man, I find myself laughing at his ill-conceived, sanctimonious judgements. Just as the laughter fades into pity, Frayn takes off into absurdity again. Michael Frayn’s achievement in this novel lies in the subtle and economic way he manoeuvres the reader (using the device of the unreliable narrator to great effect, like Ishiguro’s butler Stevens in “The Remains of the Day”). He leads us gently between the ridiculous and the sublime, from sympathy to amusement, through a philosophical discourse on the notion of happiness, along the edge of a detective novel, by way of a spoof of civil servant life, towards a small human drama. And the honey and celery scene alone makes it worth reading.
A novel about the civil service.