Munich Airport by Greg Baxter, book review: A terminal velocity thriller

 

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The Independent Culture

An elderly father and his son. An unburied body in a coffin. A fogbound airport…

From The Iliad onwards, readers have always been in thrall to the power of an incident-packed narrative. And creating one is not a skill possessed only by the writers on the slopes of Mount Parnassus: James Patterson has it, as does JK Rowling. Even Jeffrey Archer had it in his early books. But there is another, riskier strategy for keeping the reader turning the pages, inaugurated by the French nouveau roman and given an audacious reworking by the US writer Greg Baxter in Munich Airport: ditch plot and action, and look at how the characters' surroundings influence their behaviour.

Little happens here; basically, the principal figures are trapped in the titular airport with no chance of getting a flight. But the steady accretion of detail slowly reveals to us the secrets of their lives in quiet but mesmeric fashion. Baxter pulled off the same trick in the earlier The Apartment, and while the new book will certainly not be to every taste, those prepared to open themselves to his unspectacular method will find plentiful rewards.

The narrator is an American expat who has been living in London for years. A phone call from the police informs him that his sister, Miriam, has been found dead in her flat in Berlin. And the cause of death is incomprehensible: starvation. A fortnight later, the narrator's ageing, difficult father and a sympathetic female American consular official are marooned in a strange and alien world – Munich airport – waiting for bad weather to clear and allow them to take Miriam's coffin to the US. We follow their attempts to discover what led to Miriam's death.

If the above sounds unpromising as a scenario for a novel, that is to ignore the sheer authority with which Baxter marshals his material. The three central characters are beautifully drawn, their personalities unveiled for us during a series of understated revelations. Both Miriam and her brother had left the US years before and were living, respectively, in Germany and London. They had grown apart from their father since the death of their mother, and via the novel's flashback structure, we learn what made them the people they became. It is a novel that, without a trace of sentimentality, is about the importance of family, and conversely how the existential loneliness of each of the characters has impoverished their lives.

The airport – fogbound, surrealistic and unwelcoming – becomes a metaphor for this modern malaise, and for the outwardly well-ordered but empty lives of the protagonists. But although the novel is a study of grief and familial dysfunction, the final effect is life-enhancing. Baxter is sometimes channelling Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken": there is a melancholy element in Munich Airport; the suggestion that certain journeys might have changed the fate of the protagonists. But there is, at the last, a hopeful epiphany…

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