Colleen Mondor Reviews Before Takeoff by Adi Alsaid

Before Takeoff, Adi Alsaid (Knopf 978-0-593-37576-1, $18.99, 336pp, hc) June 2022.

Adi Alsaid’s Before Takeoff takes place during one long, bizarre, somewhat terrifying, delay-filled day in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Interna­tional Airport. James and Michelle are waiting for separate flights home with their parents, wandering around, killing time, when the airport goes dark, everyone becomes trapped, and a series of bizarre occurrences hit the concourses. It’s snowing in one place, growing a jungle in another, and flooding out from torrential rains a little further down the line. The trapped pas­sengers separate into somewhat predictable factions (political, ethnic, criminal), and then things get even more weird. A mindless running mob appears and disappears, a dark thing seems to lurch down the halls when the lights periodi­cally go out, and some folks (hundreds of them) disappear. It’s a locked-room mystery on a grand scale, and I had such high hopes for what Alsaid was trying to accomplish. (I have been stuck in Atlanta International; if ever an airport cried out for this kind of literary treatment, Atlanta is the one.) But then I got to the final chapters and the plot holes yawned ever deeper, and the book, in my opinion, fell to pieces. It was really, really fantastic, right up to the moment that it crashed and burned.

Alsaid’s omniscient narrator talks directly to readers throughout the book, introducing James and Michelle, who have a solid ‘‘meet cute’’ moment, providing dozens of small insights into various minor characters, and setting up all sorts of conflicts and confrontations. The source of the chaos would seem to be a mysterious switch, marked with a blinking green light, that Michelle pressed. But what is happening, how and why and who is behind it, is never explained. (The airport is angry, though; very very angry.) Rosa, a young TSA agent who befriends the heroes, has no par­ticular insight but has noted something odd about her phone: it started a 14-hour countdown at the moment everything went to hell. Fourteen hours becomes the duration for the novel; 14 hours for James and Michelle to fall for each other, 14 hours for them each to reflect upon what matters most; 14 hours to try and figure out what is going on as the tension ratchets up. I was fully onboard for much of the 14 hours and loving every tiny glimpse into the different lives of the people trapped together in the wildest of circumstances. Then Alsaid decided to spontaneously kill some of them off. Then there was an earthquake. Then a chasm formed. Then the 14 hours were nearly up and the switch was hit again and the book ended. The planes flew away. The janitors showed up to clean up the broken glass (and the puddles, and the jungle). The bodies were collected by the county coroner. The emergency, just like that, was past. Unfortunately, this return to reality, after so much intriguing buildup, was just impossible for me to believe.

It is immediately clear that the deaths, several of which the narrator has taken the time to detail, including that of a significant character, do not mat­ter. Their families, the narrator blithely explains, do not want to talk about it. There are no investigations into their murders because everyone leaves the airport. They walk out the doors, or they fly away. That’s another problem: the planes immediately start flying away. The parked aircraft, which also had people trapped on them for the 14 hours, are apparently ready to go within 30 minutes of the countdown hitting zero. (You have to suspend your belief a lot to accept that people remained trapped onboard aircraft for 14 hours, found enough food and water, the bathrooms were still in working order, and then they were ready to takeoff in 30 minutes.)

Denying the obvious fallout from the pandemo­nium that the author has so carefully constructed and described seems to me like the mother of all copouts. Alsaid concocts this smart and stylish science fiction mystery and then tells readers none of it mattered, including every single character he took the time to write about. As long as the airport was involved, the surreal plot kept charging ahead, getting ever wilder with each turning page. But the moment reality returned, the author had to address the chaos. The decision to simply ignore it all might be considered bold by some, but I think it was lazy. In the end, after 300 pages, I cared about too many of the characters in Before Takeoff to see them so carelessly treated; heck, I even wish we could have learned something more about the bleak heart of the damn airport.

Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website:

This review and more like it in the August 2022 issue of Locus.

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