The Falling Sky

thCAFHTTOSMy recent travels have at last given me the chance to finish reading the novel The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt. I actually started reading this some time ago, but absent-mindedly left the book in Cardiff during one of my occasional visits back to my Welsh residence. I remembered it when I was there over the New Year break and I brought it with me to Japan. I was indisposed with a tummy bug this morning so decided not to chance a trip to Kyoto, especially as I’m flying home tomorrow, but at least I got the chance to finish reading it.

Pippa Goldschmidt is now a professional writer, but she did a PhD in Astronomy and subsequently worked for some time as an astronomical researcher in London, in Imperial College to be precise, when I was working at the (then) Queen Mary & Westfield College. I remember her well from that time, although I hadn’t see her for ages until last year when we met in Edinburgh when I was visiting for a PhD examination.

Here’s the jacket blurb for The Falling Sky, which was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize:

Jeanette is a young, solitary post-doctoral researcher who has dedicated her life to studying astronomy. Struggling to compete in a prestigious university department dominated by egos and incompetents, and caught in a cycle of brief and unsatisfying affairs, she travels to a mountaintop observatory in Chile to focus on her research. There Jeanette stumbles upon evidence that will challenge the fundamentals of the universe, drawing her into conflict with her colleagues and the scientific establishment, but also casting her back to the tragic loss that defined her childhood. As the implications of her discovery gather momentum, and her relationships spiral out of control, Jeanette’s own grip on reality is threatened, finally forcing her to confront the hidden past. This bittersweet debut novel blends black comedy, heartbreaking tragedy, and fascinatingly accessible science, in an intricate and beautiful examination of one woman’s disintegration and journey to redemption.

As the above description suggests, the plot weaves together two strands in the life and thoughts of the principal character, Jeanette. The initial reaction of most readers will be to find one strand immediately familiar and intelligible and the other obscure and difficult to understand. The first, more accessible, level of course comprises the straightforward world of cosmology and extragalactic astronomy, science politics and academic rivalry; the other concerns such unfamiliar and outlandish ideas as “emotions”, “sex” and “relationships”. Goldschmidt largely describes these latter concepts in language accessible to non-specialists such as myself, but I did tend to get lost when she touches upon female genitalia; those passages aren’t really in my comfort zone, and rather impenetrable to me for reasons that I’ve never been able to my finger on. Perhaps some form of glossary, or even a diagram, might be a useful addition to a future edition?

But, seriously, it’s really a very good novel with an interesting narrative structure involving flashbacks and other ingenious literary devices. It also offers many glimpses of a dark and rather quirky sense of humour. Amongst many other things it makes the point – that quite a few scientists themselves seem to deny – that science is something done by human beings, and the way we do our science is consequently greatly affected by our inner life (and vice-versa).

One of the games astronomers will play – and I know quite a few who have played it already – is to try to spot the real astronomers on whom some of the characters are based. I couldn’t possible comment myself, but I’ll offer the possibility below for others to offer suggestions…

9 Responses to “The Falling Sky”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    A “university department dominated by egos and incompetents”.

    That looks familiar.

  2. “Jeanette is a young, solitary post-doctoral researcher who has dedicated her life to studying astronomy. Struggling to compete in a prestigious university department dominated by egos and incompetents, and caught in a cycle of brief and unsatisfying affairs”

    Where did she ever get such an idea?

  3. “but I did tend to get lost when she touches upon female genitalia; those passages aren’t really in my comfort zone, and rather impenetrable to me for reasons that I’ve never been able to [put] my finger on”

    I’ll be looking to see you mention Benny Hill in the acknowledgements section sometime.

  4. “One of the games astronomers will play – and I know quite a few who have played it already – is to try to spot the real astronomers on whom some of the characters are based.”

    Harry Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven contains a fictional astronomer as a main character. However, there are descriptions of real astronomers who, though not mentioned by name, should be relatively easy to guess. (I think the book is fatally flawed in some ways, but nevertheless recommend reading it, since it does many other things very well. I’m partial to it because the 4 main themes of the book are also the 4 main themes of my life. What it also does well is touch upon practically all important cultural topics in Europe in the second half of the twentieth century, much as Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake does so on a much larger scale.) There is also a movie of the book, but I don’t recommend it. (Almost all movies leave some things out compared to the book (and some change things as well), but here too much is left out.)

    Mulisch was well respected as an author in the Netherlands, but had a reputation of being somewhat arrogant. After he died, a newspaper cartoon showed him in heaven, where he looks around disapprovingly and says “I liked the book better”.

  5. I recently bought an eBook reader, and also a few eBooks for it. One is The Falling Sky, which I started reading while on holiday on the Adriatic coast in Istria last week, mainly when keeping an eye on the children rather than swimming or whatever.

    I haven’t finished it yet; I’m about 35 per cent of the way through. Based on what I’ve read so far, though, I do recommend it.

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