A Day and a Night and a Day, By Glen Duncan

The mind of an individual under torture laid bare
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The Independent Culture

Why Glen Duncan isn't better known for his highly skilled and intelligent unpeeling of the layers of humanity, scored with the contradictions of flesh and spirit and vain appeals to the divine, is a mystery. Perhaps his powerful seventh novel will change that.

The title describes how long Augustus Rose held out under torture before yielding the nugatory names demanded by Harper, his chillingly prosaic and amoral interrogator. Rose is in a non-legitimate American facility somewhere in Morocco, that Duncan has sparingly fashioned out of the grotesque resonances of Abu Ghraib. Rose endures through habits of thinking, cocooning himself inside memory and as far away as possible from the surface pain being wreaked on his body; but in the end, even this proves insufficient.

While the hog-tied exchanges with Harper hold the kernel of terror, at two days and a night they are only a small part of Duncan's elegantly plotted narrative, which flows expansively through Rose's drifting mind. Significant memories from different periods of his life are effortlessly shoe-horned inside each other: his 1950s Harlem childhood, when he was loved by his white Italian mother but taunted as her shameful black progeny; his grand affair at New York University with Selina, a fellow radical; disconsolate activism as a journalist in 1980s El Salvador; his infiltration of a terror cell in Barcelona and his present flight from human contact on a remote Scottish island.

Rose's eddying recollections subtly mimic the nodding in and out of consciousness that marks his hours of torment. Duncan is particularly good at this. The Bloodstone Papers, his last, richly satisfying novel, had mid-life slacker Owen Monroe sifting through his Anglo-Indian family's history, tracing a vendetta that was rooted in the partitioning of India. Looping in and out of Monroe's desultory present day relationships, the more dynamic and colourful saga of his father's derailed boxing career provided both an enthralling back-story and the real meat of the novel.

With a similar deft handling of time shifts, Duncan establishes Rose's consuming, transgressive relationship with Selina at the heart of this novel. Conflicted by privilege and self-loathing, Selina is stunning, headstrong, idealistic; Duncan fleshes her brilliant, needy character out in economical shards of memory that spark with an addictive, erotic crackle of energy, repeatedly nudging back to a link between physical cruelty and arousal.

"Suspicion of atrocity is an aphrodisiac to the liberal conscience, proof of atrocity its climax," Augustus reflects. "But the atrocity itself brings a kind of detumescence. It's the nature of horror: you've got to half-see it for it to work." Mindful of the banality of violence, Duncan keeps most of the assault on Rose's body off the page – just – but permeates his brief captivity with the sapping threat of hopelessness. This gives a brittle tension to an otherwise engrossing, disturbing, weirdly seductive novel that combines the nagging drive of a thriller with the account of a sexy, impassioned affair.