Book review: Waypoints

The cover of Adam Ouston's WAYPOINTS: a shot of an orange sky with an airliner proceeding from behind clouds, contrails behind.

Waypoints by Adam Ouston
My rating: four stars

So you know Harry Houdini, right? The straitjacket-and-locks guy? Big hater of spiritualist fraudsters? Escapologist, man with a dynamic gaze? Eventually bought low by a sucker punch? You know, this guy:

It’s a look, I’ll give him that.

Well, it turns out that prestidigitation and being a momma’s boy weren’t the only things he was interested in: he also had a brief flirtation with aviation. Including Australian aviation: on a trip out here (organised at great expense), Harry was keen to be the first to attain powered flight on the continent.

(He ended up being third, though that didn’t really stop people blowing his trumpet, so to speak.)

This quest for aviation supremacy – and one man’s quest to reenact it as a sort of psychic salve – form the basis of Waypoints, Adam Ouston’s novel of uncommon energy and beauty.

Houdini would be aghast at the concept of the YouTube tutorial.

The novel reminded me a lot of Ducks, Newburyport as it features a similarly frantic, almost monomaniacal narrative style. (There are more sentences in Waypoints, however.) Through the thoughts – the book feels like an interior monologue – of Bernard Cripp, a man who sets himself alight for the delight of circus crowds, we are fed details of his remarkable plan to reenact Houdini’s first-but-not powered flight.

Cripp is aiming for veracity, for replication: he wants no big crowds. His lack of aerial skill doesn’t matter: he wants to create something as close to the original act in an attempt to grasp something: some understanding, some sense of meaning and to some extent to recapture awe. This Quixotic pursuit has occurred in the wake of another momentous event in aviation history: the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which took the narrator’s wife, child, and sense of global stability. The reenactment is partially how Cripp wants to wring meaning from the world.

With flames pouring off me I shot wonder into people’s hearts while carrying inside of me the frozen egg of grief.

Through cyclical phrases and recurrent snippets of information, we’re given an insight into the power of grief and obsession. Cripp’s restless mind continually niggles facts and possibilities, in that ceaseless way one seems to after death comes calling. There’s a distinct sense of exhaustion, of almost mad brilliance, and of the overwhelming struggle one undergoes in order to keep living. Through the text, Ouston salts moments of quite lovely compassion and insight: it is, despite the mania, quite a tender text. There’s a lot of research gone into ensuring the historical accuracy of the story’s frame, but it never takes away from the wounded nature of the book’s main character.

In hindsight, I suspect my compulsion to face these facts had more to do with making myself suffer, a kind of self-flagellation, for the shame I’d felt in surviving, for carrying on while they could not.

It can be difficult to read Waypoints, because it’s such a good representation of the fog of grief, the way the search for understanding makes people attempt to find the very worst in order to see if there’s any bottom to their feelings. When I was a child, I remember being fascinated by aircraft and then, when I began to travel, air crashes. I’d research them endlessly, attempting to master the sense of the unknown, to assuage my anxieties through the hard knotting of knowledge. It didn’t really work – it can’t, I think – but to read a character doing a similar thing feels oddly comforting.

This is a pretty short work, but I think it’ll linger. I really enjoyed it – parts of it felt tailored to my particular conjunction of childhood interests, almost – and I will be interested to see what Ouston creates next.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph. If you’d like to buy me some books to review, there’s a wishlist over here.


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