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Heather Jessup's The Lightning Field opens with a woman packing up her empty nest and recalling a time "before the endings began." In a pitch that modulates between nostalgic and mildly jocular, we flash back to the inner worlds of Lucy and Peter as they progress through courtship to marriage and children in the Toronto of the early 1950s.

Peter is a young veteran of the mechanics corps in wartime England, where he patched up damaged Allied bombers and listened to the radio. "The war was the program that was on when Best of the Big Bands wasn't playing." Following his return to Toronto, he's hired as an aircraft engineer by a company in the planning phase for a supersonic interceptor jet. His project: the Avro Arrow, military boondoggle and legendary failure of vision and politics, if not of engineering.

Lucy and Peter's courtship and wedding, their immigrant-crammed College Street apartment house, her first pregnancy, the new house in the Malton suburbs, her postpartum depression, are all evoked with vivid detail of setting and an impressive shorthand of characterization.

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The visuals – details of interiors, clothing, furniture, food, streetscapes, the Avro work site and so on – register in the mind's eye like the meticulous work of set and costume designers. Bit players, such as Lucy's generically foreign apartment house neighbours, are cast in atmospheric set pieces. (You can almost see the career character actors doing their turns.) The cinematic gloss of the writing becomes, frankly, a tad too insistent.

Still, there are many moments that leap sharply to the senses in ways that movies can't accomplish. Scent, the powerful sense memory that reduces filmmakers to the cheap joke of Odorama, is one of Jessup's fortés. A hospital corridor smells "viral with a patina of antiseptic: like lemons mouldering." She also aces the difficult task of evoking, sans sentiment, the experience of sublime church music. "The movement into the simple chorus was a window, a measured amount of sky."

This is a book to settle the unanswerable "What is Canadian fiction?" It is, decisively, a teenage girl enduring the "reverberating buzz" of an Anglican church service while praying that she will "never again get the blood that came to her in the Canadian Tire washroom while her father shopped for winter tires."

There are occasional glitches. We're never told how Peter, a high-school dropout with a few years experience repairing bomber engines, lands a prestigious job designing the wings of a cutting-edge jet aircraft. Anachronisms turn up with distracting frequency. Lucy reports the outdoor temperature in centigrade degrees; Toronto's Bloor Street subway line is up and running 10 years too early.

On the day celebrating the first completed Arrow, Lucy is struck by lightning in a field near their house. Though it's touch and go, she emerges from her coma intact but for some burn scars. The Lightning Field's actual pivotal moment is Ottawa's cancelling of the Arrow project. As the planes are cut up for scrap metal, it's as if Peter's identity itself has been tossed on the scrap heap. His bitterness grows and festers, turning him chronically surly, sometimes abusive. When Lucy's patience runs out, his solution is to leave her and the children and move into a downtown bachelor pad. Jessup's grappling with the ensuing conflict, and a tragic death, is the book's least successful aspect.

Meanwhile, the storytelling increasingly presents like a novelization of the movie it wants to be. I tried not to run with this thought, but the writing persistently frames itself in set pieces that feel designed and cast and performed. Products (Jell-O, Rice Krispies, Raisin Bran, Swanson, Folgers …) read as placement more than ambience.

There remain some emotionally compelling scenes and plenty of insightful observations, but despite our point of view residing firmly inside the lead players, they still are watched more than inhabited. It brought to mind the film version of Ian McEwan's Atonement – a work of eye-catching homage that paled against the masterwork of the novel.

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The Lightning Field is Jessup's homage to a dream, to the knockout movie playing in her mind. Her better work often breaks through the decorative surface, and I have no doubt we'll see it in full bloom some day.

Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.

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