Book Review: In the Shadow of Piper Alpha

Article by Fiona Macleod CEng FIChemE

Ian Maloney; ISBN: 9781913836160; Tippermuir Books; £5.00; 2022

CAROLINE Fraser – Carrie – is a professor of geology. At the start of Ian Maloney’s novel, In the Shadow of Piper Alpha, she is travelling to Aberdeen for a conference. The primary reason for her trip is to present a paper on geothermal energy. She hopes her ground-breaking work will challenge the future of the oil industry. But academic debate is not the only conflict on the horizon. Aberdeen is also the city of her birth and the place where Marcus, her estranged father, still lives and drinks.

Marcus is a Piper Alpha survivor.

He vividly remembers looking up at the rig after saving himself by jumping into the sea.

‘And there is Piper Alpha, from sea level to helideck an inferno, a vent into hell opened in the North Sea, all that rage flaring out, gas from the risers still burning, burning, more and more explosions. There are men still on it, men still in the water. Men jumping from the helideck, a hundred and eighty feet up. Hundreds of men fighting for life.’

That same summer night, Carrie is taking advantage of absent parents to host a party with schoolfriends. When the news breaks of an offshore accident, she rushes to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary along with hundreds of others. The relatives watch in horror as the helicopters arrive, ferrying stretchers and the walking wounded.

The story of the aftermath is told in two voices – of daughter Carrie and father Marcus – with shifting timelines.

Growing up with bickering parents, a surgeon and a geologist locked in a career battle, Carrie doesn’t have the easiest childhood. A hint of magical realism – young Carrie’s encounter with Pele, goddess of volcanoes – turns out to be a fever dream brought on by neglectful parenting. It’s not only Marcus’s post-traumatic stress disorder that challenges his marriage; however, his refusal to seek help is the final straw. Suddenly teenage Carrie is left to care for her damaged father alone.

The main characters are portrayed in all their messy complexity. The portraits of Ashley, Carrie’s girlfriend and Isobel, Marcus’s second wife, are more gently drawn. The new partners learn to cope with Marcus’s addiction and the fallout that has scarred his daughter. There are no easy answers or trite solutions, but the story is written with warmth and humanity.

This is not a book about process safety or accident prevention; it doesn’t cover the causes of the 1988 Piper Alpha accident, nor the response of the regulators and industry. This is a work of fiction exploring the effect of a workplace accident on friends and families: mental health injuries that are not reflected in the blunt statistics.

So why would an engineer choose this when there is so much else to read? I have long argued that all of us should read more fiction1.

One part of our work is ingenuity, the technical problem solving that attracted most of us into an engineering profession. But there is also the daily challenge of dealing with real people, as opposed to the idealised version that we design procedures, equipment, organisations, and regulations for.

A well-crafted work of fiction allows us to walk in someone else’s shoes, see the world through another’s eyes, develop our empathy and emotional intelligence, and challenge our prejudices.

In the Shadow of Piper Alpha is a beautifully constructed, thought-provoking novel which takes us on two journeys. One is geographical – from Korea to Scotland through the fascinating geology of Japan, New Zealand, and Hawaii. The second is emotional – ripples of survivor guilt threaten a tsunami of pain until honesty, compassion, and compromise provide a breakwater of hope. I found this a compelling book and have no hesitation in recommending it.



Article by Fiona Macleod CEng FIChemE

Chair of the editorial panel of IChemE’s Loss Prevention Bulletin

Fiona was a contributing author to The Trevor Kletz Compendium (Elsevier). She writes fiction under her married name of Fiona Erskine including Phosphate Rocks: A Death in Ten Objects (Sandstone Press). Her latest novel, The Chemical Code, the 4th in the Jaq Silver thriller series (Point Blank Crime) is published in June 2023.

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