Many novels are based on real events. Hannah Pittard has taken the tragedy of a plane crash, 3 June 1962, in Paris that killed 103 of “Atlanta’s wealthiest residents” and created Visible Empire, a novel. The plane crashed on takeoff. The Atlanta residents on board were art patrons who had been on a month-long tour of art galleries across Europe. They had returned to Paris and following an evening of partying they were on their way home the next day. In all 130 people died in the crash which was caused by a mechanical failure. At the time, it was the worst single airplane crash recorded.
For The Atlanta Journal Constitution, on 5 June 2018, Mandi Albright wrote “Atlanta Arts Patrons Die in 1962 Paris Plane Crash,” an article looking back on the terrible accident. Read the full article at this link: https://www.ajc.com/news/local-govt–politics/ajc-archives-atlanta-arts-patrons-die-1962-paris-plane-crash/7h5pQ6sYWOvxrkkOGph7OM/.
Pittard has published four other novels. Visible Empire has received a number of honors including the following: an Amazon Editors’ Pick for Summer Fiction, an IndieNext List Pick, a New York Times “New and Noteworthy” Selection, an O Magazine Book of Summer, and one of Southern Living‘s Best New Books of Summer. Her previous novels also received high praise and awards. Discover more about Pittard and her work on her Web site: http://www.hannahpittard.com/. Currently, she leads the MFA program in creative writing at the U of KY.
Visible Empire employs the use of different voices to tell the story. This ploy annoys some readers, but I like the added perspective it gives readers. Instead of an omniscient narrator or a single narrator, Pittard gives readers five characters who tell the story of the crash’s impact and the deaths of those on board on those left behind in Atlanta.
The book opens with Robert’s story. Immediately, I found Robert to be an unsympathetic character. He learns his in-laws have died in the Paris crash. His mind, however, is on the death of another passenger on board, a young woman named Rita. Rita, a journalist, works with Robert and they have been having an affair for over a year. Meanwhile, Robert’s wife Lily is seven months into what is becoming a difficult pregnancy. Robert is also in debt and drinking heavily. So what does Robert do—and this information is no spoiler since it occurs in the first chapter—but leave his pregnant, vulnerable wife on the day she learns her parents have died in Paris.
Other narrators include Piedmont Dobbs, a young Black man; Lily, Robert’s wife; Anastasia, a grifter; Coleman, a wealthy n’er-do-well and drug addict; and Skylar, Anastasia’s newly reunited twin brother. Additionally, short chapters of one or two pages feature Ivan and Lulu, Atlanta’s mayor and his wife. Those short chapters are interspersed throughout the book.
All of these characters find themselves interwoven into a story beyond their control. Piedmont, Anastasia, and Skylar are unknown to the other characters until the accident. Their addition to the story completes the narrative. Without them, Visible Empire would be the story of wealth and privilege as well as loss. Yet, 1962 is a critical time in Atlanta and the US because of integration and racial unrest.
All of the narrators have stories to tell. Their stories all relate in one way or another to the plane crash because without it, all of these people would not come together. I found Visible Empire compelling enough to complete in a single sitting.