Books: Into the black hole
Michael Arditti enjoys a complex study of memory; Distance by Colin Thubron Heinemann, pounds 15.99
Saturday 14 September 1996
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.
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre