I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn Jonathan Cape $170 At around noon on July 2, 1937, America's 'Goddess of Flight' Amelia Earhart was approaching Howard Island on a round-the-world flight when she and her navigator lost radio contact and disappeared into the Pacific. What became of them has never been explained, although a project launched in 1988 has been investigating an uninhabited atoll called Nikumaroro (formerly Gardner Island) for evidence that the pair may have crash-landed there. New Yorker Jane Mendelsohn, in her debut novel, perhaps takes this idea as her inspiration and point of departure for what is not so much fictionalised autobiography or biography as a poetic interpretation of the famous aviatrix's life. The book opens with Earhart cruising in her specially adapted, twin-engined Lockheed Electra which is lost somewhere off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Behind her, passed out in the cabin, is her despised and inebriated navigator Noonan. 'We are not lovers. We have never been lovers. We could not have been further from lovers unless we had never met,' she records. And the narration adds: 'He was afraid of her lack of fear, and she was frightened by his cowardice. The more he drank, the more reckless she became; the more reckless she became, the more he drank.' Her calmly lyrical reflections are interspersed with the more tumultuous third-person narrative of the flight and flashbacks to her childhood, youth, difficult marriage to publisher George Putnam and preparations for her last, fatal voyage. There would have been only limited mileage to carry on in this vein. But then Mendelsohn takes the reader into the unknown. She goes beyond Earhart's disappearance to follow her as she crash-lands on a desert island. 'Never again will I see New York. Never again will I drive my Silvercord Phaeton. From now on I'll only have Noonan and my Electra.' If John-Paul Sartre's hell is other people, then Earhart's hell is being stranded on a small atoll with a person she detests. But that hatred soon changes as they set about surviving in an inhospitable environment. Ultimately, not much else happens and the book glides to a none-too-convincing conclusion. Mendelsohn compensates for a lack of substance with a superbly poised style which alternates between poetic flights of fantasy and philosophical reflection. At first, she borders on pretension until she starts weaving together the different strands of the novel (really a novella) so that it picks up a rhythm and logic all of its own. There is no pretence at reality, as she admits in the acknowledgments: 'This story is a work of fiction. It was inspired by the life and disappearance of Amelia Earhart; however, the portraits of the characters who appear in it are fictional, as are many of the events described.' This all begs the question of whether the book might not have been more effective had the characters been entirely fictional. But Amelia Earhart is still a potent name on which to hang a book, a symbol of the bygone spirit of aviation pioneers and of the mysterious forces that see human beings disappear off the planet without trace.