Unusual format thought-provoking

GOD IS AN ASTRONAUT Alyson Foster Bloomsbury (Allen & Unwin)
GOD IS AN ASTRONAUT Alyson Foster Bloomsbury (Allen & Unwin)
Don't judge a book by its title. The relevance of this one is not revealed until the penultimate page.

The cover is more meaningful, showing Jessica Frobisher (Jess), a botany lecturer at the University of Michigan, in her greenhouse which she constructs throughout the novel.

Her husband, Liam Callaghan, works for Spaceco, a company that takes those who can afford it into space. However, a recent trip ended in disaster when the shuttle exploded just 12 seconds after launch, killing all six aboard.

The most unusual aspect of this novel is that it is written entirely as emails from Jess to her ex-lover and colleague, Arthur Danielson, who is on sabbatical in Manitoba studying pines. He is trying to remain incommunicado, but Jess goads him into responding, although we never see any replies.

Subject headings, e.g. ''Re: suicide mission: pros and cons'', and the very full emails (letters really) explaining more than you would think necessary to a close friend, help fill the gaps, but there are obviously unopenable links to websites, articles, etc, and American acronyms and brand names that don't help.

Still, it requires conjecture about the content of Arthur's emails, and although Jess often delays answering him (whether she's annoyed with him, or just busy), all important questions are eventually answered.

The emails span six months, from March 13 to September 15 this year, which made me wonder if the book was meant to be set in the future, but that the publication date, in July 2014, had possibly been delayed from whenever was originally intended.

The media descend on Jess and Liam's house, both uninvited, a pushy New York Times reporter, and invited (by Liam) and tolerated (by Jess), a husband and wife documentary-making team. It becomes increasingly difficult for Jess to conform to Liam's expectations, watching what she says to everyone and facing ethical, moral and philosophical dilemmas. Her only outlets are to tell all to Arthur, whether he is interested or not, and to continue the backbreaking work of digging trenches for her greenhouse's foundations.

The couple's children, troubled Jack who at 10 is already acting like an adolescent, and Corinne who rambles on obliviously as 5-year-old girls do, are affected by the publicity but often ground the adults with the way they see the world.

Altogether, it was a unique experience to read this debut novel; thought-provoking, challenging and ultimately rewarding.

- Rachel Gurney is an avid Dunedin reader.

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