Emma Donoghue has gone contemporary. Much of her previous work played with history and her last novel, Life Mask, was set in 17th-century Britain. But with her current offering, Landing, she has leapt right into the present time. What’s more, she’s set much of the book in small town Ontario, a fictionalized small town that she’s named Ireland and appears to be located somewhere near London.
The novel features Jude Turner, the 25-year-old curator of Ireland’s museum of local history, who has never travelled by plane. The novel opens auspiciously on New Year’s Eve with everything about to change very rapidly and very dramatically. Within a few chapters, Turner flies to England, her mother dies and she falls for an Irish-Indian flight attendant who is 14 years older and apparently happily involved in a relationship.
The object of her attention, Sile O’Shaughnessy, is similarly set in her particular routine, albeit a much livelier one than Jude’s small town life. She spends most of her time moving from airport to airport because of her job and, when not in the air, she is a classic city dweller (in this case Dublin, Ireland) who juggles a busy social life, is lost without her Blackberry and can’t imagine how anyone can function without a decent espresso.
Donoghue sets up the two characters as absolutely unlikely lovers with distance, temperament, race, culture, past and present entanglements and nearly a generation between them. That’s an impressive catalogue of obstacles which makes for some interesting tensions, all of which give the novel a great deal of momentum even if on the whole it seems overwhelming. The novel conveys the heady, exhilarating energy that marks new relationships. There
is all the near-obsessive scrutiny that only the newly infatuated can inflict on each other, the kind that can be tedious to witness when it’s happening to someone else and yet utterly thrilling when it’s your turn.
Donoghue does a fabulous job of presenting the cultural nuances of both Dublin, Ireland and Ireland, Ontario. Not just the differences between small town life and urban life, although that’s made very clear, but also the more subtle elements. When she’s describing a typical day in the life of Jude, say a trip to a video store on an uneventful night in March, it’s so vividly small-town and consistent with the character and the place. The same is true during the segments set in Dublin, with the constant noise of the city, the complaints of all the Irish characters about how expensive everything is and how hard it is to find a place to park the car.
Having set the story in motion with all of the various contrasts, Donoghue doesn’t have to do much but sit back and have things unfold. Long-distance relationships, in novels anyway, are bound to be difficult, expensive, unpredictable and sexually explosive during the handful of times that the lovers end up in the same location. It’s hard to avoid romantic clichés under the circumstances and there are more than a few of them here. But the book’s emphasis is on the nature of identity and the possibility of change. Jude and Sile have endless discussions about the importance of history — Jude is an archivist and an historian after all — and the value of remaining rooted. Of course, Sile takes the opposite view and she believes that movement is necessary and highly desirable. The two are locked into a frustrating stalemate when they contemplate a shared future. Depending on your taste for this kind of dilemma, this scenario represents either the height of romance or a situation to be avoided at all costs.
Donoghue makes it work by her superb pacing. She captures the exhilaration of a new connection along with the mandatory moments of doubt. It’s tempting
to read between the lines in the novel, given that Donoghue herself relocated to southwestern Ontario from the UK a few years ago. But that would be like skipping ahead to the last page the novel to find out how things turn out for the distance-challenged lovers. It’s much sweeter to wait.