The most remarkable book I read in 2015 is Erebus by Jane Summer. To be clear, it isn’t exactly a novel, as it is written with line breaks and rhythms like poetry. But it isn’t exactly poetry, as it contains dialogue, excerpts from official reports, photos, maps, newspaper headlines and even a dental record.
A new kind of book
It is a new kind of book about an old and aching loss, the death of the author’s beloved friend in a still-unsolved airline disaster, when a New Zealand Air jet smashed into Mt. Erebus in the Antarctic during a sightseeing flight in 1979.
“Despite our best intentions,” Summer writes, “we forget the dead. Do they forget us?” She has never forgotten her friend Kay, who died instantly at age 29, along with her mother and 255 other sightseers, when their airplane met the mountain at 450 miles per hour.
Shards and splinters
Summer builds her story seemingly of shards and splinters, but somehow with these slicing fragments she constructs a robust narrative. We see the blossoming of the tender and intense connection between the two women, who meet as colleagues. “The rising /tide sends survivalists for higher ground. This woman, /Kay Barnick, is higher/ ground. I know it/ right away. / Like I know/ I’m sick/ of all the lies I tell.”
We meet Kay’s mother, one of the earliest women pilots, who convinces Kay to take this adventure in the air and then dies with her. We see the horrific crash, still New Zealand’s worst national disaster, and learn with scientific precision what happens to the human body in a collision with such force. And Summer shows us, with a calm accretion of facts, the corporate malfeasance that almost certainly caused the crash, and the cover-up that shielded the corporation from accountability at the cost of family members’ anguish.
Brace for impact
Certain lines repeat at unexpected moments throughout the text, achieving a different meaning and resonance each time. “Make the worst of what you’ve done/ luminous,” and “What does death do/ but make of someone three-dimensional two?”
“Brace for Impact,” one of the sections is called, and it could be a description of the whole book. Evocative and unsettling, Erebus lets you glimpse the icy landscape of the Antarctic and the equally unforgiving landscape of loss, the moonglow of friendship tinged with regret. We can never know who the dead might have been, and who we ourselves might have become if they had not left us.
The fine print
Jane Summer is a friend of mine. We met in college, both struggling to figure out how to make a life out of writing, and remain friends although we have never lived in the same city and years pass between our meetings. Don’t let that convince you to pass up this powerful reading experience.
If Erebus is a literary hybrid, but mostly poetry, why is Jane Summer one of the 30 women novelists you should know? Her previous book, The Silk Road, is a lyrical novel about a teenage girl living in a suburb called Hell, whose first love is an elegant older woman who drives an equally elegant car. The novel was recently released as an audiobook.