I See Buildings Fall Like Lightning

Image of I See Buildings Fall Like Lightning
Release Date: 
February 20, 2024
Europa Editions
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“Their lives—like most—are lived in gray zones, in the margins and crusts, in the very conflict itself.”

Like its title, Keiran Goddard’s second novel, I See Buildings Fall Like Lightning, makes a habit of juxtaposing disparate parts. In some other context, the conflict between these pieces might overwhelm their attempt at meaning (how can a building fall like lightning?), but in Goddard’s skillful hands, that conflict is the meaning.

Told through the rotating voices of five childhood friends who all grew up in the same small lower-class neighborhood, the novel feels simultaneously fast-paced and drawn out. Long swaths of time elapse off-stage, while single nights spread over multiple chapters, told from multiple perspectives.

From the start, we know these characters had big dreams when they were young, just as we know that few of those dreams have come true. Rian announces early, “All of the lives we were sure we would have. All of the freedom and the fever. None of it happened.”

Everyone in the group has their secrets and vices. Oli (whose 30th birthday kicks off the narrative) is an addict and a dealer. Conor drinks too much and is prone to violence. Patrick and Shiv are married and have two daughters, but they’re barely getting by with Patrick’s job delivering food on his bicycle. Rian is the one person to have escaped their childhood home, and he’s become wealthy, but his life feels far from settled.

Whenever they find themselves together, all of them drink too much and dabble in a variety of drugs. Often, they won’t sleep the whole weekend.

When Rian does come home, he stays in a hotel on the edge of town on the highest floor he can get, so he can see his old home from the outside. “How can you know somewhere if you only ever look at it from the inside out?” he asks.

Wealthy beyond any of their childhood dreams, Rian makes his money “buying things somewhere and then selling the same things somewhere else.” He doesn’t like to talk about when he wasn’t rich, and his wealth sets him apart from the others, though it’s clear that his childhood friends are the only real relationships in his life, which is why he still comes home, still goes out on the town, still stays in touch.

Full of eloquent one-liners, the novel explores the impacts of poverty, addiction, abuse, and loyalty from various vantage points, exposing both common ground and vast differences. Rian envies Patrick’s family, and Patrick envies Rian’s wealth. Everyone worries about Oli’s and Conor’s addictions, but not enough to change their own behaviors. There’s a solid number of blind eyes turned, inconveniences ignored, dangers skirted.

Shiv is the only woman we hear from directly, but she’s strong enough to hold her own. It’s Shiv’s friendship with and analysis of Conor’s girlfriend Sophie that makes Sophie relatable and understandable. If we only saw her through the boys’ eyes, she’d fall as flat as the girlfriend Rian briefly brings to the table—a woman named Emma whose only redeeming characteristic seems to be her intoxicating scent (she smells like pears).

In comparison, Shiv is a bit too perfect. She’s a great partner and mother and friend. She can hang with the boys but she doesn’t have to. She doesn’t get jealous; she doesn’t badger Patrick if he stays out late. She’s content with her life, even though money is tight. 

Shiv has one big secret (of course), but it’s obvious to the reader early on, and by the time it’s revealed in Part 3, we’re left wondering why it was hidden at all. The power isn’t in keeping it from the reader, but in keeping it from the other characters, and since we’re hearing directly from each person, the secrecy makes little sense. The reader can share in the secret and be just as curious to know what will happen once it gets out. We care about the reaction and the impact on relationships, not the secrecy.

An additional burden of the rotating perspectives is unnecessarily repeated moments in time. Though it’s interesting to hear the other side of certain conversations and events, there are places where those repeats feel too blatant. One of the most powerful byproducts of shifting narrators is the shifting perspective. Letting us see moments solely through one set of eyes complicates the actions and allows room for interpretation. When every perspective is given to us directly, the story feels overtold.

Those are small flaws in the greater scheme of this novel, however, and we move past them with relative ease, trying to make sense of things along with these characters.

At one point, Rian tries to explain how he thought he’d feel if he ever left the big city he’d escaped to. Buildings would melt and disappear; the sky would speak of war. But when the time comes, “it is none of those things,” he concedes. And this feels like the crux of the novel. These characters are trying to explain the different elements of their lives (buying and selling, inside and out, wealth and poverty, loss and gratitude), but they find no clear-cut answers. Their lives—like most—are lived in gray zones, in the margins and crusts, in the very conflict itself.