There is no shortage of artworks that have incorporated motifs from Peter Pan for extra emotional ballast, but I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered one that does so as beautifully as Be Ready for the Lightning. Taxonomically speaking, Grace O’Connell’s novel is a cross between a thriller and a memory play, flashing back and forth inside the inner life of Veda, a 29-year-old Vancouverite who’s been taken hostage by an armed stranger on a crowded New York City bus. The story is set before, during, and after her ordeal, the outcome of which is alluded to but withheld, even after we know she’s survived.
This structure is ambitious and effective, and the alternation between a familiar coming-of-age narrative – a tender processional of first kisses, first loves, and other teenage feelings – and a claustrophobic, life-or-death urban horror show is designed to keep the reader from accessing any sort of comfort zone. A lot of the suspense in Be Ready For the Lightning lies in watching the story reveal its shape, and O’Connell is an agile enough writer that she doesn’t let the story get weighted down by simple dread.
The scenes of Veda’s teenage years evoke furtive, fleeting, erotic sensations, particularly an extended description of a cottage sleepover including her brother, Conrad, her best friend, Annie, and her first lover, Ted. Their idyll feels faintly enchanted, flush with the mixture of excitement and sadness that attends childhood’s end.
A copy of Peter Pan, introduced fairly late in the action, clarifies O’Connell’s engagement with Barrie’s classic, especially its deep, melancholy themes of maturation. The impulsive, fragile, essentially helpless men at the edges of the story are all lost boys, each of whom orbits the narrator and acts out in ways that reveal her essentially generous, nurturing nature. This is true not only of the gunman, but also Conrad, whose impulsive violence belies his childlike sweetness, and Ted, a dashing wastrel incapable of truly growing up.
The half-Irish, half-Korean Veda – who often dreams of flying through her house, hovering protectively over her family – is no simple, Darling-like fairy-tale archetype, however. She’s a sharply self-aware young woman meditating on the various roles she’s been asked to play by her friends and lovers. To her credit, she proves an able improviser in the clutch, and the passages describing her conduct on the bus are genuinely startling. O’Connell evokes the strength of a survival instinct kicking into gear – not rational, calculated action, but a kind of automatic response that is at once consistent with what we know about Veda and suggestive of depths to her inner life that surprise even her.
Not all of O’Connell’s gambits pay off quite so well: a late twist involving a major character’s sibling barters credibility against metaphorical resonance and comes up short. And yet it’s this same sense of risk-taking that is the source of the novel’s electrifying energy.