Books: Into the black hole

Michael Arditti enjoys a complex study of memory; Distance by Colin Thubron Heinemann, pounds 15.99

Memory is the spine of identity. Without it, our lives would be paralysed. To live in the present may be a widely held ideal, but to live fully in the present - not simply to experience, but to assess and evaluate that experience - requires constant reference to the past.

This is the paradox affecting Edward, the central figure of Colin Thubron's latest novel, who ''comes to'' in a restaurant near Gloucester, having had the last two years of his memory wiped out. His bewilderment and sense of loss is described with a poetry and a pathos that recall the true-life case histories of Oliver Sacks's Awakenings. But it is the process of recovering his memory that constitutes the chief interest of the book.

Thubron generates considerable narrative excitement from Edward's attempts to track down the trauma that led to the loss. He is forced to confront the death of his mother and his strained relationship with his father, the reasons for his humiliating inability to recall anything about his present partner, Naomi, and, above all, his relationship with his driven, self-destructive colleague Jacqueline. And yet, for all Thubron's skill, the order in which the memories return can seem contrived, appearing to suit the novelist's convenience rather than the natural workings of Edward's mind.

The book's power, however, does not lie in the story but in the complex intellectual and symbolic scaffolding that Thubron erects on it. Edward is an astronomer, specialising in black holes - and it is clear that his own life has been sucked into one. His study of a volatile universe has led him to belittle human achievement and religious faith. Yet even as he dissociates himself from his past ("I don't believe in a self. Whatever I am now is me"), his desperate attempts to recover his memory reveal his need for it. And despite Edward's declaration that ''Astronomy makes history seem small'', Thubron underlines the irony that astronomers are dealing with data far more ancient than any historian. Indeed, Edward's own research is on ''a zone so distant that the light which reached Earth had set out in the Palaeolithic age''.

The universe may be ever-expanding but Thubron's narrative is very much a closed system. Everything revolves around the theme of change and permanence like planets around a star. Even a chance encounter in a restaurant is with a woman whose belief in reincarnation poses the question of whether we have simply lost the memory of our past lives. Likewise, the one old friend whom Edward visits has become a monk and exhibits a childlike innocence that Edward both envies and derides. For Harry, there is a Proustian sense that time regained is paradise re-entered.

Distance is very similar in style, structure and narrative voice to Thubron's earlier novel, Falling. In that book, Mark was imprisoned (literally) by his memories, just as, here, Edward is incapacitated by his lack of them. Both men are torn between two archetypal women, the light and the dark. In Falling, these are Katherine (a stained-glass artist) and the ironically named Clara (a trapeze artist), the guardian and the fallen angel; in Distance, they are Naomi (once again an artist) and Jacqueline, who consciously defines herself as Edward's ''dark companion'' - that is, the black hole which accompanies a star.

Distance is a highly wrought, tautly written, thought-provoking novel even though its astrophysical detail, which Thubron makes no attempt to render palatable to the reader, lacks mythic clarity. But, despite the complexity of the science, the use to which Thubron puts it - not just as intellectual background, but to inform the conception of the character and consciousness - is fascinating.

To adopt his own central metaphor, it is a novel truly of the present but one which will linger in the memory to connect with both future and past.

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