From Icarus to William Wharton's Birdy, flight and all it stands for has been a well-used literary motif. Stephen Blanchard's impressive first novel, Gagarin & I, makes use of this and another well-tried tradition, the rites-of-passage tale. Through the eyes and ever-keen ears of 14-year-old Leonard, we absorb the early Sixties, a time harking back more to the War and the Fifties than the carnival to come. The space race is young. Leonard observes the night sky with devoted fascination, knows every crater and ocean on the moon. His hero is the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, whose picture is pasted on his wall.
Leonard's infatuation borders on worship, drawing him into the near mystical. His world, revealed to us in a slowly deepening spiral, becomes a duality of the earthbound and the cosmic. Images of imprisonment are strung vividly throughout the book: fish in gloomy tanks, a demented monkey in a pet shop, his mother and aunt pacing their shared rooms. This reaches its apogee in Blanchard's treatment of Jeff the dog, surely one of the most piercingly moving accounts ever committed to paper of the possible horrors of the relationship between a boy and his dog. This is not Lassie.
Transcending all this are certain recurrent images: eerily moonlit visions of far mountains, the mysterious shiftings of the local waters, the cosmonaut, beheld with awe by candlelight, whose flight from the earth comes to seem like the flight of a soul from a body. At some point we realise the extent to which the whole book is in fact about death, as well as being a gently rhythmic paean to a place and time, to that strata of society where the respectable Northern working class overlapped with the slightly more seedy. There is a sense of sheer delight in the abundance of detail memory throws up: the bomb-pitted urban landscape, the dog singeing by the fire, peas soaking in a bowl, laundry steaming on the ceiling, a shell-covered box that plays "Lara'sTheme".
The same sharp eye records the endless bickering solidarity of Leonard's mother and aunt. Isolated with these women by a strange unspecified illness that keeps him stick-thin and away from school, Leonard eavesdrops habitually, observing them as obsessively as he does the moon. The sisters are wonderful creations, moving about their rooms smoking, picking things up and putting them down, locked together in a symbiosis so total it has become a kind of marriage, firm through thick and thin. Their world seems unassailable, full of homespun wisdom and simple assessments: "Always be scrupulous about your feet, Leonard, especially the crevices between your toes." "That woman was Irish. A lot of them are nurses. The women are saints and the men are buggers." They care for him constantly, sometimes grudgingly, sometimes lavishly, never with less than total commitment.
But things are not only what they appear to be. Throughout the book, Blanchard drops scattered hints pointing backwards into the sisters' past and forward towards some great secret that dawns upon the reader as slowly as it dawns on Leonard that it is he, himself, who locks the two women together in this way.
If there are faults, these are the occasional patch of overwriting, the odd moment of less than convincing dialogue, a contrived scene here and there. But I could forgive much for the overall feel of this clever and evocative book, with its combination of delicacy and density that reverberates after the last page.