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The Seaplane on Final Approach: A tale full of inchoate longing

Rebecca Rukeyser uses an old trick to fly readers off to a brave new world

The Seaplane on Final Approach
Author: Rebecca Rukeyser
ISBN-13: 978-1783786060
Publisher: Granta
Guideline Price: £12.99

“Sleaze had something to do with sex, something to do with danger, but it also had something to do with other, more occluded, aspects of adulthood.” Mira, the 17-year-old protagonist of The Seaplane on Final Approach, is spending the summer in the Alaskan wilderness, pining for a boy she met the previous year, fantasising about what she might get up to if she meets him again. With the fervid devotion of a teenager, her interior musings are full of sexual frustration, elaborate reunion scenarios, unrealistic hope.

This longing spreads to the external world, where ordinary household items are tinged with desire. “Sleazy: Formica kitchen tables, soft packs of cigarettes, thin floral dresses.” Even the lush Alaskan landscape is distorted through Mira’s lens, becoming “the sleaziest” of the US states, a strange assertion (Nevada, surely?) for somewhere of such renowned natural beauty, but one that becomes clear as the story progresses and we witness the clever juxtaposition of character and place.

Throughout The Seaplane on Final Approach, Rebecca Rukeyser’s assured, elegant prose brings colour and outline to the great outdoors, and in Alaska, that is great with a capital G: “A flotilla of sea otters, a whale breaching, a chartreuse green slope scattered with blooming lupine.” Elsewhere, there are dark seas alive with luminescent plankton, forests thick with tall, mossy trees. Lushness, as opposed to sleaze. But later in the book things start to shift. There are roars from panthers that sound like women screaming, then “a late summer heatwave, the last of its kind; the fireweed was turning to pollen on its stems, and the tops of the mountains were crowned with changing heather. The rust was starting at the top of the mountains and making its way down.”

It’s an inspired metaphor for all that’s about to go wrong at Lavender Island Lodge, the guesthouse accommodation where Mira has found a job as a trainee baker and housekeeper. She joins two other girls, friends Polly and Erin, and a taciturn, troubled chef, all of whom work for married couple Stu and Maureen Jenkins, hard-edged Alaskans who depend on the short summer season to make a living.


Having so few characters helps Rukeyser create a taut atmosphere, where the bosses – Maureen in particular – watch over their employees to make sure they’re working hard enough. Stu is more easy going, everyone’s favourite friend and predator, the attention he pays the girls a ticking time bomb that no one knows how to defuse: “When I came back, Erin was doing aerobics and Stu was watching her with his hands lying on his belly in a satisfied way. Maureen was looking at Stu. Polly was still lying on the log, looking at Maureen. I was looking at all of them.”

Mira is the right narrator for this story, sharp and observant, but unable to effect much change because of her age. Rukeyser has opted for a retrospective narrative, with an older Mira – now working as an EFL teacher abroad – looking back on this defining summer of her youth, trying to understand the things that happened, and her role in them. This allows for a tone that is both wistful and sardonic. On her downtime at Lavender Lodge, “[Maureen] encouraged me to do fun things, like walk down the beach and hunt octopuses by luring them from their holes with syringes full of bleach.” With the benefit of hindsight, meanwhile, Mira sees that “Stu wanted to suckle at his own youth some more, he wanted to be bright-eyed. He wanted what was gone.”

Tourists from Florida, Germany, Norway and Vermont are skilfully used to structure the narrative into short episodes that mark the passage of time. The holidaymakers come and go, exploiting the landscape for their own needs. Time resets and the guesthouse experience begins all over again, neatly capturing the artificiality of the hospitality world. Less successful structurally are Mira’s frequent shifts into the future to relate various characters’ fates – a style perfected by Muriel Spark. In Seaplane, however, these flash forwards work to undermine the suspense and narrative tension that Rukeyser has so carefully constructed in the present-day action at the lodge. It answers, too early, that pivotal question: what will be lost?

Originally from California, Rukeyser has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and teaches writing at Bard College Berlin. Her fiction has appeared in the publications ZYZZYVA, the Massachusetts Review, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her debut novel is part adventure story, part coming of age tale, about a woman on the cusp of adulthood, full of inchoate longing. If moving a character to a foreign world in order to bring about a transformation is a time-worn staple of fiction writers, Rukeyser takes that old trick and flies her reader off to a brave new world.