Existential crisis is sometimes inevitable.  The question at 40 being what am I doing with my life?  At 60, what have I done with my life?  And the resulting analysis can be very, very painful.  It would be helpful to have a shoulder to lean on at times like this but the mother and daughter in Sharon Blackie’s debut novel, Laura and Cat,  are living on different continents, physically separated and, more tellingly,  emotionally estranged.

Cat, 40,  is suffering from panic attacks which are increasing in severity.    Refusing therapy for the panic, she decides to confront her obvious fear of flying.  Heading off into The Long Delirious Burning Blue of the title, she enrolls for a series of flying lessons.  As her head clears she begins to confront the painful memories that she has suppressed for so long …..

At the same time, her mother has returned to Ullapool, the scene of her disastrous marriage and the launching pad of the years of shame which follow. Her actions were not trivial – what would possibly lead a daughter to say, on the day she leaves for university:  “I’m never coming back to this house. I’ve had enough of it. I’ve had enough of you.” 

You can’t put the past behind you until you’ve stood up to it and faced it down” is the advice offered Laura by her neighbour Meg and that is what she does in a series of  letters to her daughter, which reveal step by step the depth of her regret.  The letters serve to draw out Cat’s memories also and the full history emerges only through the consolidation of both viewpoints.  Is it enough to effect a reconciliation between mother and daughter?

The novel is structured in chapters alternating between Cat’s contemporary life in Arizona and Laura’s history prior to Cat’s birth.  This latter of greater interest to me than the former – probably because I relate more to the Northern English grit of Laura’s origins than suburban American life.  Many emotional parallels are drawn during Cat’s flying lessons – the author’s partner is an RAF-pilot and she, herself, learned to fly while living in the States -and we follow Cat and her growing courage from the first lesson through to advanced death-defying stunts.  Metaphorical texture is added too by the contrast between the hot dry flat Arizonian desert (Cat’s emotional suppression)  and the wet green mountainous regions of Scotland (the peaks and troughs of Laura’s emotional turmoil). 

The emotional ranges ring true.  Cat refusing to be emotionally honest, Laura too open giving too much, too quickly. However, I didn’t become completely engaged until the two narratives dovetailed in time …. at which point the intensity of the narrative became much more involving.

The different ways in which the same event can be observed and the story told is a main theme. In Ullapool Laura joins a story-telling circle and proceeds to transform her history in a fairytale – a  poignant tale of a selkie (seal) princess who leaves the sea to marry her human love.   He hides her seal skin, effectively stealing her identity and the means of her return.  It’s a magical tale with a poignant ending.  And just when I thought I’d recognised in it the flightpath of Cat and Laura’s relationship,  a sudden tailspin delivers a clever, unexpected,  but satisfying conclusion.   

To be published 18/02/07 by Two Ravens Press, owned by Sharon Blackie and her pilot partner.  My review copy thus provided by author and publisher – a publisher with a mission statement quite unlike anything I’ve read before and their small but diverse catalogue harmonises with that.   The Long Delirious Burning Blue exploring the mother/daughter relationship in a radically different way from Lisa Glass’s Prince Rupert’s Teardrop.  And the books are well-made, the binding such that it’s incredibly easy not to crack the spine!  Now that I really, really like.