Time travel across the psyche

DISTANCE by Colin Thubron, Heinemann pounds 15.99
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Despite five previous, acclaimed novels, Colin Thubron remains best known as a travel writer. With Distance it should be a case of sixth time lucky, for if this doesn't mark him out as one of our most compelling contemporary novelists, nothing will.

Thubron loves journeys. They are his leitmotiv, the difference between his travelogues and his fiction being not so much one of style, or even content, as the type of voyage he chooses to take us on. In this case the excursion is through the mind, the terrain strictly psychological, although his ability to evoke atmosphere and setting is as acute as ever.

Here is a novel about memory; or rather about the loss of it. As it opens, Edward Sanders comes to in a cafe minus any recollection whatsoever of the last two years of his life, and, in traditional mystery-thriller fashion, sets out to piece together what happened during that missing period. Like a Jungian Sam Spade he ferrets out his recent history, gradually rediscovering his family, his work, his relationship with live-in lover Naomi and, overshadowing all, his affair with fellow astronomer Jaqueline, the tragic conclusion to which caused his amnesia in the first place.

As a travel writer Thubron moves from the external to the internal, using what he sees about him as a gateway to personal reflection. With Distance he reverses the process, taking Edward's inner struggle and allowing it to colour his physical surroundings. A visit to an Indonesian volcano comes to symbolise lost memories welling up; his quest for the facts of his immediate past is reflected in his study of black holes, the mysterious, space-warping properties of which serve as a recurring metaphor for the dark confusion of his mind: "the universe in my head collapsed into somewhere chaotic and terrible". And just as it has been theorised that black holes are pathways to a other universes, so Thubron's protagonist ultimately passes through his amnesia into a newly reconstructed life.

The distance of the title manifests itself both in Edward's emotional separation from those around him, and in the physical remoteness of the galaxies he is studying. Above all, it refers to the state of Edward's being, divorced as he is from the certainties of his past. Memory is seen not merely as a collection of jumbled experiences, but as an essential corollary to life. Without them, one's present is null and void, just as, according to some philosophers, the universe only exists because we took at it. "I hoard and savour memories," says Edward, "I even feel physically stouter after recovering them, as if they were my body."

This is a cracking read. Admittedly it doesn't quite deliver the thrills and spills inherent in its initial premise, and in a number of places the dramatic tension slips. What it lacks in the nail-biting, crash-bang- wallop stakes, however, it easily makes up in its depth of perception and emotional intensity. Character and situation are evoked with masterful economy of language, and the taut, crisp sentences impart a hypnotic quality, as though it were a dream swiftly noted down on waking, before it fades.