Lillian Hawker, Gladys Van Tassel, Gladys Freitas, Leila Adair, Lillian Rayward … are they one woman or many women? They are all aeronauts, ascending in hot air balloons, descending under parachutes – if all goes well. Through all her various personas, all Lillian is sure of is that when she is floating through the sky “She felt more alive than she’d ever been before”. But why? “What madness made her ricochet around the country like some sort of inexhaustible firework?”
Lillian is one of three sisters. Ruby, a fellow aeronaut, always outshines her, yet Ruby is the only person who really understands Lillian: “What was the point if Ruby wasn’t there to admire the risks she took?”. Essie also longs to take to the skies. Their mother often accompanies the young women on their ballooning tours. I was expecting a sparkly narration of bravery and daring, but The Only Living Lady Parachutist is far from that. Lillian lives through a series of rogues and conmen, a series of financial disasters (including the Australian banking crisis), and a long series of ruined balloons.
Lillian’s life is one of the Stage, the Circus, the outdoor spectacle. The events and venues often cheap and tawdry. Many of the people flocking (or trickling) to see her, are attracted by the possibility of disaster, and often get what they want, “After Lillian made a low-altitude flight at Ashburton, where she collided with a spectator and then a tree, Arthur was ready to try at Rangiora”. Lillian falls into the performers’ way of talking up their own prowess and history, playing up to journalists, and their hyperbolic headlines. And in “searching for that elusive, unattainable remedy for a yearning she couldn’t even name”, she starts to blur fantasy and reality.
There are two men in Lillian’s life. Henry is a ventriloquist who yearns for a settled married life, he is the father of her children. But she is always putting off marriage for one more ascent – leaving their children to Ruby or her mother to mind. She is torn between the “embers warming her heart from within” that are her feelings for Henry and the “ice cold shock and burn that coursed through her veins when ballooning”. Arthur has the same craving for adventure as Lillian, and is even a bit jealous of her: “Why is it that a woman clinging to a balloon is always a more thrilling attraction than a man?” Lillian isn’t sure which persona is attractive to which man.
Lillian tries to sort her life out as she tours the towns of Aotearoa and Australia: “What we made in Geelong we spent in Sandhurst, and what we made in Sandhurst we spent in Broken Hill.” She escapes drudgery and enters a world totally populated by performers; she ignores what is around her to live in a fantasy, dreaming of touring the Orient with “turbaned coolies serving tiffin and sweetmeats”. She is “a star, glowing with weightless brilliance”, yet also a laughing stock: “You’ve got more tenacity than you’ve got talent, Leila”, and a bit of a rogue herself.
The Only Living Lady Parachutist is simply written, the story framed around Lillian distracting her granddaughters from the sorrow of the death of their young brother. We learn in the afternote that Thor, named after her own son, died like the captured butterflies mentioned in the story. He is one of many young boys whose deaths are scattered throughout the narrative – Lillian’s life is largely shaped in reaction to her guilt over the death of her brother when she was a child, “Ballooning was penance for my sin”. Lillian found it hard to get too fond of her own son, always worrying something would happen to him.
The book is a great piece of historical fiction, meticulously researched. Once finished, I immediately looked up 19th century aeronauts and found a world of wonder. Each chapter starts with an epigraph of an actual newspaper clipping of the time. The early #YeahNoir work The Mystery of the Hansom Cab by Fergus Hume, even gets a mention. The reader feels the squalor as well as the splendour – a Sarah Bernhardt performance scintillates, then quietens to awe as the audience pores over translations of the French: “It reminds me of a prayer meeting”.
The insertions of Lillian considering her telling of her story to her granddaughters, adds a mystery element to the story, keeping the reader wondering and reading on. And when we reach the final reveal, the reader reconsiders the whole narrative, and the pieces fall into place. I really enjoyed this book, and suggest you will too, so have a read.