Review: Familiar, By J Robert Lennon

Mirror, signal, parallel park in another life

Peter Carty
Wednesday 21 August 2013 11:12
Comments

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.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in