Landfall, By Helen Gordon

Two lives, both struggling not to go under

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The Independent Culture

Each character in Landfall is introduced through their identity-defining crisis.

For the protagonist Alice Robinson, an arts journalist in her mid-thirties, it's the mysterious disappearance of her sister when they were teenagers. For Danny, a misfit teen, it's his experience of nearly drowning as a child. Both of them are still struggling not to go under; not to be submerged by day-to-day existence – although the novel will remain slippery when it comes to determining their fate.

We begin with Alice, who lives a fairly hand-to-mouth existence in the shabby, albeit trendy, environs of London's East End. Helen Gordon, a former associate editor of Granta making her novelistic debut, deftly colours-in Alice's lifestyle: the "unprettified canals and blockish concrete industrial units" where she lives; the men with a "certain haircut" who gravitate east; the unglamorous, casual reality of a pass-the-vodka-bottle drinking culture that persists well beyond student years. Gordon also captures the ennui of this young media professional life without seeming too irritating: the shallow limitations of Alice's artsy existence are rendered convincingly prosaic.

After Meta, the magazine on which she works, folds, Alice heads to the suburbs to house-sit for her holidaying parents. Not that this world of Tudorbethan houses with "scrupulously maintained" gardens much enlivens her. Nor does the arrival of her 16-year-old cousin or an ominous black dog, both of whom she ends up looking after. For someone whose job relied on critical insight, Alice is curiously reticent to investigate her own malaise. She becomes more detached and demotivated; words fail her, becoming simply an "ingenious screen masquerading as something important and true".

While this might sound wearisome – and is, at times – Gordon certainly has her own way with words. Landfall is compulsively readable, with a silky smooth pace; you never feel you're greedily gulping it down, yet somehow the pages slip by. It's only towards the end that Gordon goes in for a gallop, with a series of dramatic narrative swerves. All through the novel, you're expecting to reach some answers and neatly tied up ends, yet Gordon resists this temptation. These final chapters are still a little unsatisfying, however; it can be almost as much of a cop out to veer wildly into new territory as it is to offer pat answers and confirmed happy couplings.