Harry Clay – a quiet, hulking slab of a man, widower, father of two and carpenter – sets out to plan the wedding for a beloved niece. But three things stand in his way: the gravitationally crushing guilt he feels over his wife’s death, the mythic dimensions of the task he’s taken on, and the great aunt who doesn’t want to see the niece make the same mistakes in marriage and life as Harry’s dead wife.
The novel begins when he wakes up one wintry morning and decides to jump into a stormy sea off Brighton Pier. A family friend collects him in hospital, and presses him into action; since his wife’s death, the wider family has, like Harry himself, broken apart. A favourite niece, a young girl named Noni who was a vibrant light around whom the rest of the family revolved, has disappeared. Harry chooses to settle his blood debt by finding Noni. Once he finds her and the boy she’s run off with, Harry realises that tracking her down isn’t enough; to repair his family and expiate his guilt he must bring his far-flung and broken family back together by helping Noni get married. On a broader level, Harry’s story echoes that of Hercules. Harry too must complete a dozen labours in order to rebuild his family and forgive himself.
The story is a meditation on the affinity between our small human lives and the lives of stars. Stars maintain a fragile equilibrium between the explosive force of nuclear fusion and the crushing force of gravitational collapse. As humans, we experience moments of ecstatic joy and crushing defeat. If the grief outweighs the joy, if we exceed an emotional limit, we can collapse in on ourselves. Harry has become an emotional black hole. The novel follows his journey as he struggles to transform himself into something else. It is a portrait of the man, his struggle and the city in which he lives.