EACH DAY the narrator of Scar Tissue, a lecturer in philosophy, stands on his head in the hope of warding off the family brain disease which is killing his mother. Out of dark material, the story of a woman's decline and death, Michael Ignatieff shapes his second novel. Writing, too, in this case, 'may be like standing on your head; an exercise in magic; a vain exorcism of spirits'.
Certainly the narrator's wife thinks so. She leaves him when his obsessive visits to his mother's nursing-home start to disturb their own family life, and when he confesses to an affair with a nurse there. This adds further poignancy to a tale which has earlier painted a nostalgic picture of a rural North American boyhood. But even then the disease had already struck his grandmother and, legend has it, his great-grandmother. So the idyllic vision is blighted from the start. A sudden, dark reversal in this already bleak purview is the unexpected death of the father (an emigre from Odessa) before the mother.
The other son is a medical researcher. He initially presents genetics as a way to avoid fate. Later on, genes just seem like a modern version of it, able to 'take a life and dismember it' as cruelly as the scissor-bearing sisters of Greek mythology. The twist is that this particular genetic disorder manifests itself first as creeping, then as galloping, amnesia. The mother can't remember the life she is losing. Human identity 'becomes neurochemical'. What else is there?
What else there is may be is writing: putting things down on paper; keep-saking. It is in this respect that Ignatieff's fine novel (his first, Asya, appeared two years ago) is most interesting, offering itself, like the scar tissue of its title, as the mark of a deep wound. The book is full of images of marks being made, then obliterated. The narrator's small son writes his name on a toy blackboard, rubbing it out as he goes along, then writes it again. Others are more chilling: the nylon tips of stitches peeking out through the blood-line of an incision in the skull; footprints and the tyre-tracks of ambulances, 'the deep, ragged furrows left behind by my father's knees when he had dragged his body to the retaining wall'. The connection of these with the writing of the novel is made when the brothers tidy up their father's study after his death: 'The half-sentence he had left behind in the typewriter began: 'As you all know, deep-disc ploughing will . . .' Two rogue 'e's' floated above the word 'deep', like a disc plough itself, poised above a furrow.'
The narrator is unsure about the ethics of ploughing up family history. Writing about those you love always seems like a betrayal: the writer starts to have the same sort of relationship to his words as saints do to their holiness, fearful that it is corrupted through wanting the object too much. The object, in this novel full of lost objects, is nothing short of raising the dead with words. The intimation of this possibility shades into one of raising the dead through science. Indeed, Ignatieff widens the whole thing out further, in terms of the disease as well as the cure, hinting that we are all suffering from some sort of cultural amnesia.
These and other observations involve chunks of gnomic language that doesn't seem like fiction, reminding you of Ignatieff's other incarnations as a columnist, broadcaster and former don. But the veerings away from the main focus don't spoil the novel as much as they might. The narrator seems very close to the author; the book is justifiably made one with the life.
The digressions culminate in the 'manic treatise' that is the novel's coda. 'But do yourself a favour,' the brother says of it. 'Put that manuscript on the fire.' We can be glad that this was not the fate of Scar Tissue, which ends with a fantasy of the writer's own death, the old curse breeding in those terminal cells.
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