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Up in Flames

September 14, 2009

Ascent

This year I’m trying to expand my reading repertoire by concentrating on authors new to me. Latest in this line has been Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, a novel about a Soviet flying ace, Yefgenii Yeremin, who after undertaking secret manoeuvres in the Korean War is eventually recruited as a ‘phantom cosmonaut’ in Russia’s desperately race against the US to put a man on the moon. What’s unique for me is that on finishing the book, I did something I’ve never done with any book (certainly not in at least 25 years — there’s no knowing what I re-read obsessively as a child): I turned immediately back to page one and re-read the whole book.

There are two reasons for this: the first and second part of the book. Ascent is a shortish novel — 260 pages — and on my first reading, I found the first two-thirds an almost unbearable slog, a protracted and dull prologue to the ‘real’ story, that of Yeremin’s solo moon-mission. In this final phase the book took off (sorry) at long last and, by the end of this short, densely-packed, masterfully controlled and beautifully written section, I found myself  so struck and moved that I had to go back to the start and try to work out why the first 20o-odd pages had left me so cold.

Partly it’s down to the author’s technical aptitude. Amid guns, planes, ammunition, tech-speak, acronyms whose meanings are immediately forgotten — all of it immaculately researched, certainly, but the learning worn lightly — I started to lose track of our emotionally deadened protagonist. Even his romance with a similarly damaged woman (our only female character, referred to exclusively as ‘the widow’, a description and a prognosis) is described in such at-arm’s-length a way as to render this potential ‘in’ to the character almost useless as far as empathy goes.

The second reading — on which I skipped much less of the technical terminology than first time round — shows that the wartime and Arctic sections of the book are in fact carefully constructed to show how Yeremin’s affectlessness sets him aside from the other characters, and renders him the perfect candidate for the final solo mission. Coming back to these sections armed with foreknowledge of the Laika-like fate that awaits him, and knowing the stoic way in which he greets his end, lends the opening sections some poignancy as Yeremin is sent from pillar to post, denied the chance to celebrate or even acknowledge his achievements as a flying ace, and effectively banished to the Arctic in a kind of disgrace from which he has no hope of redeeming himself — at least until the man from the Soviet space program comes calling. His family and his colleagues behind him, alone but for his failing instrument panels and the stars and planets, answerable to no-one but himself, Yeremin finally comes into his own.

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