Review: Familiar, By J Robert Lennon

Mirror, signal, parallel park in another life

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The Independent Culture

Is the life you are living really and truly yours? Elisa is driving home when she notices that the crack in the windscreen of her old Honda has vanished. She realises she is in another car, wearing different clothes. There are other changes. Her body is plumper and when she rings her husband he tells her that he loves her – a distinctly novel experience, that one. The biggest surprise of all, however, is that her youngest son Silas, dead in her previous life, is very much alive and kicking in this one.

It is unclear to Elisa, and to us, whether she is suffering from a prolonged psychotic episode, perhaps a delayed reaction to her bereavement, or if she has been transported into an alternative reality. Rather than seizing up, she tries to make sense of her bizarre experience, consulting a therapist and a physicist, then joining an online forum dedicated to parallel universes.

The erstwhile deceased Silas is also active online. He is now a successful computer games creator – Lennon points up the ways in which computer games themselves resemble parallel universes. Unfortunately, Silas is also the same sociopath he was in Elisa's previous life, with an unpleasant hold over his elder sibling Sam.

Lennon is an American writer whose novels delicately probe the psychology of their protagonists. To date he's written seven; among the best known is Mailman, about a postal worker who has a crack-up. This time he opts for a subject with antecedents in science fiction and fantasy. His forebears include HG Wells, with the utopian parable Men Like Gods, and – of course – C S Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia.

Nevertheless, Familiar offers more nuanced writing than that pedigree implies. The novel is centred upon Elisa's estrangement from her family, in portrayals which are consistently masterly. Lennon gives us luminous access to her thoughts. Near the start of the story, she suspects that she might have had a stroke. When she arrives in A&E the heightened awareness brought on by stress makes her look upon the grouping of herself, her husband and the doctor, and wonder whether they have spent their entire lives, "making their slow way towards this moment".

When Elisa asks her husband to tell her about the early part of their relationship, she remembers how she surrendered herself to him so totally that "she forgot how to desire things that weren't him". Later, after they developed separate emotional lives and motherhood took up most of her mental space, she was left to reflect on the loss of her career as a scientist.

In Familiar Lennon uses his sci-fi vehicle to create eerie fiction. The notion of parallel universes becomes a metaphor for life choices and their results. If Elisa kicks against the conservative nature of her new existence, it might not be any worse than her old one. Meanwhile, immersion in her alternate realities prompts reflection upon the aleatory nature of our own life, in all its uncanniness.