Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton
Lily Brooks-Dalton’s general fiction novel, Good Morning, Midnight (2017), is literary in nature but uses speculative elements to contemplate isolation, hope, despair and human connection. The book has beautiful prose, especially in some of the descriptions of the arctic, and interesting insights into human nature, but it was not a completely satisfying book for me. In a few places, the hand of the author can be seen forcing events in order to make the story work, and some of these tropes, particularly the literary ones, felt too familiar. Still, it’s worth checking out for the writing alone.
Good Morning, Midnight follows two characters who are about as far apart spacially as one can imagine. Augustine is an astronomer who has remained behind at an arctic observatory site after it has been evacuated. To his surprise, after the evacuation craft have left, he discovers a girl, about nine years old, hiding in the compound. Meanwhile, Sully is an astronaut on a human-staffed spacecraft Aether, sent to study the Jovian moons. They are now on their trip home, but Earth has been radio-silent for months now, and Sully grows increasingly worried about her family and all of earth for that matter.
The backdrop of this moody story is the silence of Earth, the sense of some catastrophe. Augie evinces little to no curiosity about what might have happened. He is at heart a loner, a broken individual who was most alive at his work. Now nearly eighty, he is alone except for a self-sufficient child, and spends days looking back over his life, his successes and failures. He also confronts day to day life in the arctic, watching the progress of a polar bear and once confronting an arctic wolf. The base is well stocked with fuel and packaged food, and he thinks he and the little girl, Iris, can live there for many years.
Aboard Aether, Sully and her five companions grow increasingly fearful about what the silence from Earth portends. Each faces, or flees, the problem in different ways; camaraderie begins to break down. This part of Good Morning, Midnight was especially convincing to me. Like the reader, the astronauts know nothing of what might have happened, except that it can’t be good. In Sully’s case, she not only worries about her family, but feels that the meaning of their mission has retroactively been stripped away; the wonders they bring back from Jupiter will have no meaning if there are no people.
With one jarring exception that threw me right out of the story, the sections aboard Aether were the most interesting, probably because there were several characters, and they did things. Augustine’s story seemed to grind along with a lot of repetition, since he was replaying his life in his head. I believe this is how most of us actually do think, but it can get a little dull on the page. The sections we see with Augustine’s mother were compelling and authentic, but I found his career less believable.
Early in Good Morning, Midnight I formulated theories about how Sully and Augustine’s lives might intersect, and exactly who the little girl was, and my theories were proven correct with no surprises. Near the end, Augustine reveals a darker side to himself, but it didn’t seem that plausible to me. I had trouble believing, even in a literary novel, that a seventy-eight-year-old man would have been invited to a program in this harsh environment in the first place. That may be a bias of mine, but the book never overcame it for me.
Augustine’s decision near the end to try to reach out to the world via radio convinced me, though. He arrives at it slowly, and we see that this isn’t the first time he has tried to make things right, but once again he’s left it too long, and it’s too late.
Aboard the Aether, I was suspending disbelief with little trouble until Sully and another astronaut take an EVA to repair a piece of equipment. I found the sequence of events implausible, knocking me out of the story and making it difficult to trust the writer and reengage. A Marie-Celeste-style sequence aboard the International Space Station created the same skepticism, but fortunately that scene happens very close to the end, where I was already invested enough to keep going.
There is beautiful work here but overall, for me, it didn’t meld into a cohesive whole. This appears to be Brooks-Dalton’s first long work of fiction. Her previous book was a memoir and most of her short work looks like nonfiction as well. She is a talented writer whose commitment and work on the details shows here. While Good Morning, Midnight was not a complete success for me, I would recommend this book for a book club because the ideas explored here are thought-provoking and universal.
Ignore the comparisons to Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven. While they share some tropes they are nothing alike.
After comparing the two book covers, I’d say they were definitely going for a “Station Eleven” vibe.