Turning rupture into rapture

Skybound: A Journey in Flight
By Rebecca Loncraine
Picador (£16.99)

It’s only June, early for predictions, but I’m sure Rebecca Loncraine’s Skybound is going to be one of my books of the year. It’s a book that makes you look at the sky and the land with new eyes; that gives you a lift, in more ways than one.

  Loncraine was 35, had finished a biography of L Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz, and had a head full of plans, when she was diagnosed in 2009 with breast cancer. The illness and treatment overwhelmed her; for a long time she was scarcely able to talk, let alone write. Two years later, out walking with friends in the Black Mountains of Wales near her parents’ farm, she passed a gliding club and found herself booking a lesson for the next day. As she told The Daily Telegraph in 2012, “I needed something new, something big and intense. I wanted to live boldly as it might not be for very long.”

  Gliding provided that something, and got her writing again, scrawling “private love letters to the wind”. Those notes were the origin of Skybound, which she had all but finished when — cancer having returned in her abdomen — she died in September 2016. It’s an extraordinary book, one in which the writer, for whom the world had closed down, feels it reopen, and carries the reader up on the thermals with her.

  In the acknowledgements, Loncraine refers to her book as a memoir. It’s also a primer on the basics of gliding, on the four kinds of lift — all the result of moving air, heated by the sun — that pilots can harness to soar like the birds. It touches on the history, too, of unpowered flight, and embraces some extraordinary characters. Among them are Montagu, Lord Norman (1871-1950), governor of the Bank of England during the Great Depression and the Second World War, who dabbled in spiritualism and believed humans had once been able to fly but had lost the knack; and Barbara Cartland, who, before turning her hand to romantic novels, not only came up with the idea of launching a glider with a towplane but flew one on tow 200 miles to deliver the post.

  The book is a celebration of wind and wings; an exploration of skyscapes in Wales, in New Zealand, where Loncraine spent a winter gliding and writing, and in Nepal, where she joined Scott Mason, a British paraglider, who has taught rescued vultures (including one named Kevin) to fly with him.

  Most of all, it’s the story of how flying helped the author come to terms with the changes cancer had wrought in both her body and her mind; of how a rupture in an earth-bound life turned to rapture in the sky. “Flying,” Loncraine writes, “brings you into greater intimacy with nature. That’s what I’ve been searching for, up here. The natural world can hold any hurt inside it, recognise it, gently turn it over in the palm of its hand like a precious stone, and I have the sense now that the sky has crept up into my spine, worked its blue way into my bones.”

  Reading her descriptions of her lessons, I was reminded of Colum McCann’s prizewinning novel TransAtlantic, in which, in a passage on Alcock and Brown’s 1919 flight, he takes you into the cockpit with the aviators. On flight after flight, but without turning to fiction, Loncraine does the same: “I’m shocked to suddenly notice that we’re flying directly over my home… I trace the boundaries of the farm with my finger from inside the glider. I see how the land rises up and wraps around it on three sides, so it looks like it’s held in the cupped hand of the hill. Beyond the farm, I can see how it sits within the wider landscape, and I’ve a feeling of rediscovering my familiar world, but from a much larger perspective.”

  It’s not — how could it be? — a flawless book. A beginner pilot can veer off in an odd direction in the sky, and Loncraine sometimes does the same in her sentences, a tendency that’s most marked in the prologue and that editors and proofreaders should have corrected. Skip the prologue and join her, in Chapter 1, in the air. Then you too will be “swallowed by the sky”, and you’ll understand that we’ve lost a huge talent. MK

This review appeared in The Daily Telegraph on June 16, 2018