I received this book for free from Goodreads First Reads, Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton
Published by Random House Publishing Group on August 9th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Science Fiction, Action & Adventure
Source: Goodreads First Reads, Penguin Random House
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A quiet, character-driven, post-apocalyptic novel filled with gorgeous nature descriptions. An astronaut in space and an astronomer in Antarctica search the airwaves in hopes of connecting with another living soul, despite evidence that everyone on Earth is gone. It’s being compared to Station Eleven (the covers are even similar), but it won’t be a slam dunk for everyone who loved that book. As predicted in my review of The Sunlight Pilgrims, I’m now going to rave about things that I previously ranted about!
Even the fleeting things were worth their weight in sadness. Even a few words could mean something.
Something catastrophic is happening on Earth and the inhabitants of Antarctica are being evacuated in order to reunite with their families. Seventy-eight-year-old Augustine (Augie) has no one to return home to and decides to stay. A couple of days after the evacuation, Augie discovers an eight-year-old girl named Iris, who was somehow left behind. When he tries to contact someone via radio communications, there is only silence. He was hoping to live out the rest of his lonely, miserable existence quietly and alone, but he’s now responsible for someone else’s survival.
Sully is an astronaut returning back to Earth as part of a two-year mission to Jupiter. After a year of constant contact, the ship has lost communication with Mission Control in Houston. It was assumed to be a temporary glitch, but as time passes it points to something more ominous. The crew of Aether was looking forward to returning home, but now they are uncertain of what they will find when they get there.
“We study the universe in order to know; yet in the end the only thing we truly know is that all things end–all but death and time. It’s difficult to be reminded of that but it’s harder to forget.”
The opening epigraph and the name of Sully’s mom both point to the title being a reference to Jean Rhys’s 1939 novel of the same name, which “deals with a woman’s feelings of vulnerability, depression, loneliness and desperation during the years between the two World Wars.” Likewise, Dalton’s novel deals with similar themes at the end of the world. The title for Rhys’s novel was derived from this beautiful Emily Dickinson poem (analysis at link):
Good morning, Midnight!
I’m coming home,
Day got tired of me –
How could I of him?
Sunshine was a sweet place,
I liked to stay –
But Morn didn’t want me – now –
So good night, Day!
After I finished the first two chapters of Good Morning, Midnight, I had two major questions:
• What catastrophe befell Earth?
• Who is Iris and how did she get left behind?
I shouldn’t have been so focused on the answers to those questions. The catastrophe is vaguely addressed at the end, but we are as clueless as our characters. Iris is important, but mostly in terms of Augie’s development. This book is about Augie and Sully taking stock of their lives, coming to terms with their choices, learning to cope, and figuring out what really matters. I don’t want to make it sound like nothing happens! Both characters occasionally encounter the dangers inherent in their inhospitable environments, but those aren’t the most interesting or important parts.
[Augie] had never been interested in television or novels. He wanted to learn from life, from observation. And he did: he learned that love was concealed by a swirling vortex of unpleasant emotions, the invisible, unreachable center of a black hole. It was irrational and unpredictable. He wanted no part of it, and his experiments only confirmed again and again, how distasteful it all was.
The chapters alternate between Augie in Antarctica and Sully in outer space. Both Sully and Augie “[crave] connection without understanding how to obtain it.” They both direct their attention to the cosmos when life gets messy. Their psychological journeys mirror each other, as they both scan the airwaves hoping to find signs of life. Augie’s chapters are the most introspective. Iris rarely speaks and their sweet relationship develops through the way they care for one another. He never pushes her for answers and she gives him something to hold on to. He seemed resigned to his past choices, but his connection to Iris makes him reflect on his life in a different way. The setting was wonderfully drawn. I have been attracted to books with freezing climates lately and Dalton did a beautiful job describing the beauty of Antarctica and its wildlife through the seasons, while also clearly illustrating the harsh unpredictability of the environment.
[Sully] would trade them all, every byte of data they’d collected, every single thing they’d learned, for just one voice coming into her receiver. Just one. This wasn’t wistful bargaining, or hyperbole, just a fact. She had boarded Aether believing that nothing could be more important than the Jovian probes, and now–everything was more important. The whole purpose of their mission seemed insignificant, pointless. Day by day, there was nothing except the digital binary of mechanical wanderers and the cosmic rays from the stars and their planets.
I loved the space chapters! When the crew looks out the ship’s window, I felt small against the enormity of the universe. Dalton gave me a sense of the overwhelming feeling of looking out into infinity. There are six crew members with very different personalities on Aether, so there is more dialogue in Sully’s chapters. We only meet the crew members through Sully interactions with them, but I came to care for each of the unique crew members (even rough-around-the-edges Ivanov!). The silence from Earth has a devastating emotional impact on Aether’s crew and they each have their own way of coping with the uncertainty. If you were annoyed by Mark Watney’s enduring positivity throughout The Martian, you should know that is not the case here! As the ship gets closer to Earth, the silence gets increasingly eerie and it leads to some haunting scenes. Like Augie, Sully has many demons to wrestle and the potential end of civilization has set the stage for her to reflect on her life and the things that are important to her. When she joined the mission, she left behind a seven-year-old daughter who she never emotionally bonded with. She always felt like there was something missing inside of her and she questions the choices she made throughout her life.
“I’m still here because I have nowhere else to go,” he said. “I’ve had a long time to come to terms with that. Understand, I am in pieces just like you, but I keep them separate. …Do you know what I do? I brush my teeth and think only of brushing my teeth. I replace the air filter and think only of replacing the air filter. I start a conversation with one of the others when I feel lonely, and it helps both of us. This moment, Sully this is where we must live. We can’t help anyone on Earth by thinking about them.”
A five-star rating doesn’t necessarily mean perfect for me. The foreshadowing before a pivotal space event was laid on too thick and the scene it led up to felt melodramatic. The story revolves around a huge coincidence, but I quickly accepted that as a framework to explore the themes. I guessed the major revelations in the first chapter, which reduced the *gasp* factor. It really didn’t need to shock or surprise me though. It was a thoughtful book that hit me hard on an emotional level. It was a book I took in slowly rather than devouring. Every single one of the characters resonated with me, even the minor ones. It had many insightful things to say about coping and forgiving oneself. It helped me think of an Augie in my own life in a more empathetic way. What greater gift can a book give?
Augustine looked at the terns preparing for the arrival of their chicks and marveled at their tenacity–hatching new life at the end of the world. One of the terns swiveled its head to stare at Augustine with one eye. What do you now that I don’t? Augustine asked it. But the tern only ruffled its feathers and hopped away.
Since the Sully’s and Augie’s personal journeys were complete, I was satisfied with the ending. Part of me wants a sequel, but I’m just as happy imagining the possible outcomes for myself. I’m always captivated by books where people try to find a way to reconnect with the communities they have been separated from. (The Martian and Room were also 5-Star reads for me.) Would the things that seem important today still feel as important if it was all over tomorrow? “What endures at the end of the world? How do we make sense of our lives?” I’m not sure I would’ve made time for this book if I hadn’t won it in a giveaway, but I’m glad it found its way to me.
(All the talk of radio communications in an apocalyptic setting made me want to revisit All the Light We Cannot See!)