The Falling Sky by Pippa Goldschmidt (Book Review)
You shouldn’t go into The Falling Sky thinking it will be a book full of sharp plot twists and turns, or a science fiction romp that keeps you guessing right up to the last page. No, this definitely isn’t that kind of book, this is at its core a meditative essay on life, loss and growing into adulthood, and then realising it doesn’t come with any certain answers.
The story takes place through the eyes of Jeanette, who is an adult postdoctoral researcher in astronomy. The book flips between the present day and the past, but at the start of the book we join her in the present, where she is attempting to gather data at a mountaintop observatory in Chile. It is there that by chance she finds two galaxies moving away in opposite directions from each other, which if correct could prove the big bang theory wrong, a theory which relies on the outward expansion of all matter. Such a potentially game changing discovery is just the thing she needs to move her career forward in such a competitive field as astronomy research, but she has to be careful around her peers, for some are not happy with the discovery itself, and she goes a little against protocol when she needs additional data to strengthen her theory, and as a result starts to make a few enemies within her circle. What is more relevant here though is not her discovery of these two galaxies, but how she handles her life and her relationships with the people around her. We feel that something is haunting her, something that drives her to seek out the unknown in the empty sky, but also something that you feel cannot be found in the places where she’s looking.
In the chapters that go back to the, then, we start to find out more about her childhood and the reasons behind her reluctance to let people into her heart. We learn that her sister, who was a very successful swimmer and got all of the attention, died when she was young and her parents don’t seem to have ever gotten over it. In fact they remain illusive about what really happened, and instead of embracing the one daughter they have left, you feel they don’t fully appreciate her existence, which has left Jeanette with a sense that she might just be invisible to them, and perhaps to all in her life.
Throughout the novel, Jeanette is revealed mostly through her relationships with women, and the most heart breaking, but at times lovely relationship in the book, is the one she has with Paula. The relationship is one frequented with bouts of sexual intimacy and closeness, but then cracks start to appear, and Paula starts to not notice Jeanette quite so much, and it’s a case of her relationship breaking down, and mirroring that which she has with her parents. She is invisible, but she is looking for answers, anywhere she can find them, whether that may be the in the naked night sky, or in her sister’s old room full of swimming medals.
The Falling Sky works on several different levels, and a good knowledge of astronomy is by no means necessary, as this is more about the characters within the book, rather than the details in the science. However I do feel that to have at least a base knowledge of the subject can only add to its enjoyment. For me, Goldschmidt utilises her knowledge of the subject very well, and you can tell that she was once an astronomer, for the ease with which she navigates through a lot of the technical detail is admirable, and it comes out so naturally that you can tell that this derived from first hand experience, rather than endless research.
There are some areas of the book that I didn’t like however, for example as we near the end of the story, we see certain characters suddenly letting go of their grudges with seemingly no explanation as to why. Likewise, her parents seem to all too easily change tact and find warmth once again for their daughter towards the end of the novel, but it seems too conveniently placed. I saw no motivation for the sudden shift, and it felt like a resolution brought about to end the story, rather than something organically unfolding and true to the characters themselves. Perhaps this is a little harsh of me to say, but that’s just something I felt personally.
On the whole however, I found this to be a quick and enjoyable read and could really relate to the characters that Goldschmidt provided. The economy and ease with which she covered the more technical areas of the story was perfect. There were some really good, heartfelt observations in the relationships too, and by the end I was happy with the way everything turned out, even if some parts seemed a little forced.