Faber & Faber, £12.99, 354pp, £12.99. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Possessions of Doctor Forrest, By Richard T Kelly
Friday 15 July 2011
Richard Kelly's second novel is almost cheekily ambitious. For a good two-thirds of its length, it appears to be mainly a literate contemporary thriller, set in and near London, rich in character portrait, sly social observation and convincing technical detail. Its leading characters are three successful, middle-aged doctors, old college friends and rivals, one of whom who suddenly disappears.
Mysterious deaths and strange encounters abound. Then comes a cunning narrative twist, which displays the earlier events in an entirely new and thoroughly spooky light. The whiff of brimstone grows stronger by the page, and the conclusion is little short of a glimpse into Hell.
For those who know their Gothic fiction, it soon becomes obvious that The Possessions of Doctor Forrest is also a loving tribute to the classics of that school. The missing Dr Forrest is a fashionable plastic surgeon – a Dr Frankenstein for the Botox age. The frightening events of his life also resemble those of another unhappy 19th-century medical man, Dr Jekyll. There are allusions to James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner; and the novel's principal actions are conveyed through documents – diaries, interviews, police reports, exactly in the manner of Bram Stoker's Dracula.
One of those place reports notes that Dr Forrest had become increasingly disillusioned with his profitable but trivial practice: "I think it occurred to him that he had rather lost his soul." As we eventually discover, this is closer to the truth than his friends could guess. Dr Forrest, whose name echoes Faust, truly has sold himself to the Devil.
Literary acts of homage run the risk of being displays of ingenuity first and satisfying entertainment a poor second, but Kelly has managed to produce one of those rare hybrids: a book which has the robust narrative drive of genre fiction but also the thoughtfulness and stylistic flair of good literary fiction. He has done a great deal of homework on the specialist fields of his three main characters – pediatrics, psychiatry and cosmetic surgery - and there is the odd moment when he seems slightly too much in love with his own research. In the diaries of the child surgeon, for example, there are passages which read like a report for the Lancet: "I dissected the ipsilaterallatissimusdorsi off the chest wall, divided the thoracordosal neurovascular bundle..."
But even these slightly over-egged technical digressions serve to add nuance to Kelly's characters – men in their fifties who are comfortable and competent in their own fields but uneasy and at times powerless in their family lives. In the final pages, Kelly's eternally doomed protagonist nods in the direction of Dante's Hell, with its selva oscura, or dark wood, or Forrest. It is the forest in which Dante found himself lost at the mid-point of his life. Not the least of Kelly's achievements is to have used intrigues, brutal murders and the supernatural as a way of sounding the panic terror that underlies any mid-life crisis.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 The difference between a psychopath and a sociopath
- 2 Cara Delevigne addresses awkward interview on Good Day Sacramento
- 3 Top Gear team of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May officially heading to Amazon Prime for new car show
- 4 How to cancel Amazon Prime: after Top Gear hiring, how to leave premium service
- 5 MH370 debris: Investigators 'confident' that Boeing 777 wing found - live updates
Top Gear hires female executive producer Lisa Clark amid reports Jodie Kidd will join Chris Evans fronted show
Frank Ocean, where's that new album at?
Top Gear team of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May officially heading to Amazon Prime for new car show
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk
Jon Snow not dead? Kit Harington spotted in Belfast where Game of Thrones season 6 is filming
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn – or a return to a Labour government
Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn says 'we can learn a great deal from Karl Marx'
I am the Jeremy Corbyn supporter that many will tell you doesn't exist
Public anger after French sunbather beaten up by gang for wearing a bikini in Reims park
Labour leadership: New poll shows party is now even 'less electable' than under Ed Miliband
Calais crisis: For desperate migrants it is 'England or death' as they brave dogs, riot police and speeding trains