In Waypoints, Bernard Cripp, hardly stopping for breath, delivers a monologue spanning virtually one paragraph of 170 pages. The effect is an urge to read more quickly, but not to skim, because there are no wasted words. Cripp has a delightful way of repeating himself, the repetition often enhanced by an embellishment. Thus, when he first mentions ‘The Great Houdini – illusionist, self-promoter, dispeller of frauds and inveterate daredevil’ he doesn’t enlarge on his background.
At the next mention of Harry Houdini, Cripp expands: ‘born Erik Weisz, of course, in Hungary in 1874, one of seven children, the youngest of whom, Carrie, was left almost completely blind’ and off he goes on a tangent into Houdini family history. A later mention of Houdini presents us with ‘Erik Weisz, Ehrich Weiss, Harry Weiss, Harry Houdini’.
This kind of expanded repetition is not confined to Houdini and adds a delightful touch of humour to Cripp’s monologue; you look forward to the next embellished repetition. And while this novel is a serious work, that light touch of humour sadly missing from so much fiction is most welcome here.
Cripp is trying to come to terms with the loss of his wife and daughter who were passengers on Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared on 8 March 2014. He harvests facts and theories about that disaster and speculates on what may have happened. While his hunt for facts proceeds and his chance of achieving closure continues to elude him, Cripp plans to recreate Houdini’s historic controlled flight in a powered aircraft in Australia.
Though billed as a first, it was in fact the second of its kind and Cripp speculates lugubriously about the value of an historic second. This activity vies for his time, as he also helps to look after an ailing father with Alzheimer’s disease.
A waypoint is an intermediate point on a route of travel. This novel has many such intermediate spots where Cripp recounts tales of explorers lost in the desert, proffers discourses on an information-loaded world, speculates on what the Prince of Wales, soon to become King George V, might have said to his dying father, gives potted histories of people who spring to mind, explains aeronautical details and speculates on how the doomed passengers of Flight MH370 may have felt during their final hours or minutes.
Each waypoint is self-sufficient, but most contribute to either a better understanding of the possible cause of the MH370 disaster or Cripp’s obsessive recreation of Houdini’s so-called ground-breaking flight. One waypoint sees Cripp, former circus proprietor, dressed in flame-proof clothing and delighting a dwindling audience with a pretence of self-immolation. For a short novel, it covers an immense amount of ground.
This is a brilliant work that allows the reader to effortlessly share and understand the emotions and preoccupations of its hero. It is a masterpiece of storytelling with a captivating and delicate touch. It conveys a deep sense of loss without imposing misery. It deals with serious matters like obsession and the overload of information, but doesn’t lose its sense of humour. It is erudite without a trace of snobbishness. It is a great novel.
Waypoints by Adam Ouston
Publisher: Puncher & Wattmann
Publication date: 1 March 2022