If you wander into any High Street book store at the moment you’ll almost certainly stumble across Noah Hawley’s novel Before the Fall placed in prominent locations. Part of that is because Hawley has become something of a star name and hot property thanks to his day job as showrunner and lead writer of the successful Fargo and Legion television series. I confess it was his name on the cover that initially drew my interest too. However, I stayed because of the book’s concept – and pretty soon I ended up paying for a copy because I was by then hooked after reading the first chapter.
Before the Fall starts with a plane crash. A private jet chartered by TV news executive David Bateman to take him, his wife Maggie and their two young children along with family friends Ben and Sarah Kipling and bodyguard Gil Baruch back to New York City from their holiday home in Martha’s Vineyard ends up plummeting into the Atlantic. Of the eleven passengers and flight crew aboard, there are only two survivors: one of them is Scott Burroughs, a failed painter who shouldn’t even have been on the flight but who now finds his life transformed by the experiences he goes through.
The novel is written with all the breezy accessibility of a typical summer beach bestseller, but the themes it touches on in the process are far from superficial. In particular Before the Fall is an examination into what it’s like to be at the heart of the ensuing international media frenzy that breaks out, when all you want is to be left alone to process the extraordinary, unbelievable events you’ve just experienced..
Most of all, Before the Fall is a compendium of character thumbnail vignettes. Each of the passengers and crew on board the plane has a section devoted to them – their lives up to this point, their thoughts and hopes and fears for the future, and what brought them to flying together on that night. Without exception Hawley brings each of them to life in turn. He gets us engrossed in their individual stories, which are far from neatly concluded when suddenly they’re brought to a violent unforeseen halt by the plane crash. Later there are new characters – relatives and friends of the passengers, accident investigators, media personalities and eccentric billionaires – all of whom get caught up in the aftermath and find their own lives permanently changed in turn.
There’s a danger with such a high concept that the novel will disintegrate into a series of short stories with minimal connective tissue, but Hawley uses the central mystery of what caused the accident to keep a firm narrative grip on the structure. While it would be wrong to call this a crime thriller or whodunnit, the question of whether the crash was pilot error, technical failure, sabotage or something even more chilling hangs over the entire story. The stream of clues and hints and red herrings provides the pulse which brings the story to life and keeps us thoroughly gripped to the very final page.
I was very impressed with Before the Fall, as you can probably tell. I’d recommend it to literally anyone. Just make sure you have some time clear in your diary before attempting to read the first line, because otherwise there maybe some turbulence to your schedule…
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Before the Fall is available in paperback from all good bookshops across the UK, and as an eBook and audiobook.