The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers

Now for the science bit
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The Independent Culture

On a straight road in rural Nebraska, near the ancient but threatened migration grounds of sandhill cranes on the Platte river, Mark Schluter flips his truck. An anonymous call from a service station in nearby Kearney summons the emergency services. Police find three sets of tyre tracks at the scene but fail to locate the tip-off witness or the other vehicles involved. Eventually, Mark emerges from a coma with no recollection of the incident and an inability to recognise his sister - the woman at his bedside, he claims, is an identical imposter.

His long-suffering older sister Karin Schluter had been looking out for Mark since the "maelstrom" of their childhood, with capricious parents: a hopeless, bankrupted prairie farmer and a religious zealot. Having worked frantically all her adult life to escape the small-town gravity of her native Kearney, Karin now finds herself jacking in a customer care job and returning there to nurse Mark. Three months on, she anticipates that she will fail her bewildered brother just as "she had failed to protect her parents from their own worst instincts".

Much of The Echo Maker is driven by Karin's anxious investigation of Mark's extreme neural diagnosis but there are passages which meander as much as the nearby Platte, whose instinct-driven migrant cranes give Powers an easy symbolic backdrop to the obscure workings of memory in the human brain. Mostly Powers writes well, and lucidly, with particular skill at drawing out the distress and frustrations of men and women struggling with overwhelming or ungraspable adversities. But Powers has brought us here before, in long novels such as Gain, published in 2000, in which an afflicted Midwestern family comes up against the intractable local chemical plant that is held responsible for local health scares. Powers wrote up the saga of the Clare Soap and Chemical Company with such a depth of technical detail that the similarly fragile human narrative of Gain was lost in the author's solid research.

In The Echo Maker, this data-heavy narrative fault line follows Gerald Weber, a celebrity neuroscientist fascinated by the spread of Mark's paranoia. His imploding career becomes a sub-plot that helps to saturate the fabric of The Echo Maker with reflections in neuroscience which spill beyond what might be needed to address Mark's plight. This softens the crisp edge of the Schluter narrative. Karin's involvement with two old flames - one a developer and one an environmentalist, both locked in a bitter contest over the future of the migration grounds - further distracts from Mark's essentially linear progress.

Rather than enriching the novel, these sub-plots are a little too convenient and dissipate tension from what could be a shorter, sharper book. The Echo Maker is another solid achievement for Powers, but again with a hint that with tighter editing he could produce something even better.