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Review: The World Was All Before Them, By Matthew Reynolds

How to Adam and Eve it

Suzi Feay
Sunday 10 February 2013 01:00 GMT

Matthew Reynolds takes the title of his second novel from the closing lines of Paradise Lost. It's the moment when control of the narrative passes over from God to Man; and if Adam is concerned with pure existence, and Eve with the meaning of existence, what will their modern counterparts be doing with their lives?

Reynolds's Adam is Philip, a newly qualified doctor, and his Eve is Sue, who has artistic ambitions and works in a contemporary gallery. The opening chapters are concerned with the multifaceted and scrambled nature of modern life (which is also the concern of Sue's projected artwork, The Whole World). Philip sees through the prism of his medical knowledge; when he has an erection, "his pudendal artery dilates and his corpus spongiosum and two corpora cavernosa begin to swell". In contrast, Sue experiences the world through a filter of conceptual art. "I [want] to try and do something about sensation …" she tells her husband. "About this weird way … that every-thing gets into us. You know, we are in the world; but it is also in us."

Reynolds' narration adds another layer of defamiliarisation: in one bravura passage where the couple are in bed, his omniscient view glides over the sheets "of paymaster cotton nurtured to woolly blobs in the fields of Tennessee" and duvet "manufactured in hilly, thrusting Zhejiang" and mattress "constructed in Leeds" and so on out of the window past the "elders, nettles, gravel, dandelion", down to the river "carrying perch, roach, bleak, a ripped Tesco bag, carp, chub …". This kind of thing is apt to cause apprehension in the reader – and not just of the "is there going to be much more of this?" kind. Surely bad things are about to happen.

Gradually, the narrative settles down. Philip is having problems at the practice, especially with a young mother and her ADHD son; there is a crisis at the gallery, so Sue might at long last get her show, but only by subterfuge. Poignantly, Reynolds shows how little Philip and Sue actually share in terms of time and thoughts. They are physically and mentally separate for much of the book's duration, and we're reminded again of Milton's couple who "through Eden took their solitary way". This is a fascinating, strange and formally delightful novel.

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