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Stop that balloon! A review of “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” by Stuart Campbell

Another book review! What can I say? I’m on a roll here, guys.

I took some time off last week and took the opportunity to read another one of my holiday sale books, “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” by Scottish writer Stuart Campbell.

The story is definitely not your traditional beginning-middle-end type. It follows three characters in three different places: Ursule is in Paris in 1864, Dexter is mired in the Vietnam War in 1965, and Dante is a priest in modern-day Italy. They’re completely different people in completely different situations, united by two things – terror and a hot air balloon ride.

From the beginning, Campbell’s focus is the hot air balloon. The story starts out with him missing a hot air balloon ride that he had planned in order to inform his three stories. He believes that the ride will create a sense of rapture, a freeing sense of escape from the mundane world below.

Instead, he is forced to imagine what that rapture may feel like. Each story is an excerpt of what we, the readers, are led to believe is part of a larger novel that Campbell is writing. Each one ends with the air balloon landing…somewhere.

After each mini-story, Campbell laments his writing skills. He doesn’t like how he describes the experience of being in the hot air balloon, the feeling of escaping death by a hair in what he imagines is this fantastical mode of transport. The freedom of being in the air, the threat a tiny speck on the ground, is a sense he struggles to capture (or say he says. I thought he did a pretty good job.). All because he missed his flight.

I wonder if he got a refund, or do you pay when you board?

Anyway, the stories are engaging, and Campbell deftly creates three different worlds with ease and authenticity. But you’re left with that sense of incompleteness. What happens to Ursule when she lands in the middle of a war zone? Does Dante really die, or is he stalking the Italian countryside? We don’t know.

(Incidentally, Dante has by far the best¬†escape: he grabs onto a giant balloon of the Virgin Mary and kicks her away from the platform she’s tied to.)

Ultimately, “The Aeronaut’s Guide to Rapture” is more a story about Campbell himself and his writing process than it is about any of the characters that occupy the pages. They are background figures to the real hero, Campbell, who struggles to achieve his purpose. In a way, it takes you out of the rapturous sense that he’s working so hard to create. But in another, it’s kind of like the balloon rides he describes: an uplifting sense of being in a new world, only to have it come to an abrupt end. In that sense, he’s achieved his purpose.

Goodbye cruel world! Wait, are we going down?