It is impossible not to feel a soul-hollowing sense of devastatingly cataclysmic loss when you someone you love dies.
It is the ultimate battle of the heart and mind, the former grief-stricken beyond all reason and the latter desperately trying to make sense of something that will bow to logicality or understandability.
It is hard enough to handle as an adult of any age but as a kid? Almost beyond comprehension, something that insightful debut author, Helen Fisher, explores with compassion, empathy and a suitable amount of heartfelt quirk in Space Hopper.
With a title that references a bouncy rubber toy with handles which had its heyday in the ’70s when the book’s protagonist is a small girl, Space Hopper is an poignantly imaginative novel that affectingly examines what might happen if you could travel back in time and meet the person you lost all those years ago.
The person in question for Faye, who is happily married to handsome, sweet, soon-to-be vicar Eddie and mother to the delightful Esther and Evie, is her mother Jeanie, who dies when her daughter was eight-years-old, leaving her in the care of grandparents-like neighbours down the road, Em and Henry.
“I longed to hug her with the luxury of knowing for certain that I would see her soon, or talk on the phone. I longed for a telephone that spanned the space and time between us. Instead, I would hold her now in the knowledge that it might be my last chance. It was worse that not knowing, and yet, there was hope. I pushed myself away from the table; she stood too and opened her arms to me.” (P. 71)
Though she was loved and cared for all her life and has emerged into adulthood, well-rounded and happy, 36-year-old Faye has a mother-shaped hole in her soul which means that for all her present happiness, she is trapped in the depths of the past with no permanent means of escape.
She is missing closure, that much-used term which talks of the opportunity we all long for, in the face of the vagaries and cruelties of a world which cares not for happy endings, to deal with an unfinished, bloodied loose ends of life.
Rarely do we get the chance to put the insistent demons of pain and loss to bed but Faye gets this rare opportunity when she finds herself back in her childhood home – how is best left to the reading but it is gloriously clever, quirkily poignant and imaginatively rich – and able to talk to the mother she can barely remember.
She does, of course, think she’s either crazy or dreaming but as events unfold and she is drawn into the life of Jeanie and her childhood self, who seems blissfully happy with her caring, hippy mother, it becomes clear that she is really in 1977 and that she has been given a gift of time with her mother, something she has longed for all her life.
Wonderful though this oddity of time and space is, it does begin to cause problems in Faye’s idyllic here and now as she grapples with how much she is willing to sacrifice in the present for a shot at more time with her mother in the past.
Space Hopper is one of those rare and artfully expressed novels which takes out an outrageously out-there premise and makes it work profoundly beautifully and deeply affectingly.
It’s a tricky road to travel with the quirky premise often possessing a very real possibility of subsuming any real, authentic humanity in its wake, novelty triumphing over substance as it were, but Fisher effortlessly invests her astonishing idea with a real sense of what it would feel like to have a second chance at a relationship with someone you lost just as you were really getting to know them.
Adding to the richness of the story is that Faye is loved and care for deeply by Eddie and her daughters, and her blind gay coworker Louis, who believes her unbelievable tale of time travel and motherly reunion when pretty everyone else would hand themselves over, without question, to rampant and understandable scepticism.
It is the richness and love of these relationships that help us to understand how much of a hole the loss of Faye’s mother has left in her life.
She has everything anyone could want – great marriage and family, fulfilling job and rich friendships with Louis and uni friends Clem and Cassie – and yet she cannot leave the deep, never-healing wound of her mum’s passing alone.
“Louis leaned towards me. ‘But you did go back, didn’t you?’ he said in a fiercely hushed tone, chastising me. ‘And you made some lives better. You brought peace to Elizabeth. You brought joy to Henry and Em. Who knows how much peace and joy they in turn spread because of you. You lost something, they gained. You can’t have it all, Faye. You have to let some things go.’
‘I can’t!’ I wiped the tears from my face with the backs of my hands.” (P. 326)
This beguiling quirky and heartfelt novel is such a satisfying read because it understands all too well how we never really heal after grief gets its cold and unyielding hands on us.
We move on certainly, life gives us little option really, and the intensity of the pain subsides but we never really stop wishing we could see that person or persons again, talk to them, see them laugh, smile, hug them and have them in our lives again.
Space Hopper is empathetic and insightful in this regard, an off-kilter tale that uses the most audaciously out-there of ideas to go to the very depths of a soul in crisis and ask it to ponder what matters most – the present or the past?
Or could you possibly have them both without losing either? (and might you, in the course of the most extraordinary of journeys change others’ lives for the better even as you mourn the loss of what might have been for yourself?)
That is the billion dollar question really, and the driver of the engagingly affective narrative which always keeps its eye firmly on the humanity at the heart of its storyline and never once forgets that we all long for closure, for that magical moment where we get a second chance to make things right.
Or at the very least find answers to the questions that have long haunted our waking dreams, something Space Hopper offers Faye who finds herself simultaneously joyful and trepidatious as her life takes a most unusual and unexpected turn and she has to ask herself what matters most to her and to which part of her life she owes the great allegiance, time and love.