Books, Fiction, Reviews

Constellation book review: a best-selling debut based on real-life tragedy

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Constellation is a peculiar little book. It begins with a burst of facts strung together with as much urgency and mystery as the final minutes of the plane which crashed with 49 people on board in 1949.

It is mostly a novel but is composed from the few known details of the crash of France’s F-BAZN, also named Constellation. The facts are woven together with the author’s imaginings in an attempt to “hear the dead and write their small legend”. It’s a small legend told in concise and potent prose that makes for eerie reading.

French author Adrien Bosc stitches together the real stories of the passengers and crew on the flight from Paris bound for New York. Constellation never landed in New York, nor at its designated emergency landing airport in Portugal’s Azores islands.

The stories of the eleven crew are told in deft strokes but Bosc focuses mostly on the passengers, honing in on the two who featured in the headlines most: Algerian-born French boxer Marcel Cerdan and violin prodigy Ginette Neveu, who were both in their early thirties.

Cerdan, the lover of French singer Edith Piaf was off to Morocco to reclaim his middle-weight title, and had bumped three passengers to get on board. Neveu was on her way to “take the US” after her acclaimed performances across Europe.

“In the departure hall at Orly, Marcel is wearing his lucky blue suit. Over it, further bulking up his giant frame, is a heavy grey tweed coat. The boxer is superstitious and has his habits, never departing from them in the ring or out. In fact, he blames his defeat in Detroit a few months earlier on the disruptions to his rituals.”

Bosc compellingly captures the details and imagined experiences of a plane journey with an eye for lingering details – the Basque shepherds off to make money in the US, the Frenchman who opened a string of tanneries in Morocco, Neveu’s broken violin bow found at the scene.

The characters Bosc dwells upon provide much of the book’s power when their well-wrought narratives are brought together at the moment of the fiery crash.

“Flames have consumed the debris and scattered it to the four winds, and aside from the five more or less recognizable corpses it seems impossible at first sight to identify the Constellation’s victims for the various limbs distributed among the rocks.”

However, the book falters slightly in its final third. Bosc appears to be torn between plunging his carefully spun creation into acceptance of the meaninglessness of sudden, shocking deaths, or trying to draw lessons, insights, some kind of meaning to these kind of accidents.

Ultimately, like a thump to the roomy metal undercarriage of a plane, this lack of resolution becomes, possibly accidentally, the most meaningful note of an unusual but memorable novel.

Constellation is published by Allen & Unwin.

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