The Evidence by Christopher Priest (book review).

We return to the enigmatic Dream Archipelago in Christopher Priest’s new novel ‘The Evidence’, the location of many of his novels and short stories. It’s a world of hundreds of islands in which strange things tend to happen and where Christopher Priest takes advantage of the temporal and gravitational anomalies to weave wondrous and multi-faceted tales.

The opening chapter felt immediately familiar to me as crime fiction author Todd Fremde makes his way on a long trip by plane and train to a conference on the island of Dearth. The tediousness of the journey, the relief at arriving in the hotel room, the general hassle of the whole thing was so like my own business trips. The experience of being a writer, too, obviously very familiar to Christopher Priest, also brought a wry smile to my face.

Earlier this year, I read Christopher Priest’s 1974 novel ‘Inverted World’, which seemed the least Christopher Priestian novel I’d read. As Todd Fremde made his way across the island of Dearth by train, though, I had the sudden realisation that the reality-bending physics of ‘Inverted World’ were in fact a reflection of the very same anomalies that suffuse the Dream Archipelago stories; it’s just that the Dream Archipelago seems more mystical. I won’t explain the concept of mutability that has a strange effect on the island of Dearth, but it adds that air of incomprehensibility to the mundane, a feeling of wonder to the murder-mystery that is shaping up in the background.

Another of Christopher Priest’s recurring themes, multiple conflicting versions of reality, also makes its appearance in ‘The Evidence’. This time, Todd Fremke is told about an unsolved murder back on his home island from several years earlier. When following it up back at home, ostensibly out of curiosity rather than any desire to play the amateur sleuth, he comes across a similar account wherein the victim’s name is vaguely similar and the rest of the details don’t really tie in properly. Todd Fremke’s attempts to get on with the routine of his life while the mystery nags at his subconscious, inexplicably strange things happen and makes a wonderful melange of narrative threads.

As things develop and Todd’s retired-cop friend, Spoder, carries out his own research, Todd also narrates his own life as he compares the process of writing crime fiction with the reality of being tangentially involved in such a case himself. There’s a slow build-up of mystery and tension as we’re held on the cusp of what we expect might be an explosive finale. That’s not the aim of this book, though. It’s a solid, comfortable captivating book that once again demonstrates Christopher Priest’s masterful ability to make the mundane seem intriguing and simultaneously make the bizarre seem routine. It’s inspired me to go off and find the other couple of Christopher Priest novels I haven’t read yet.

Gareth D Jones

November 2020

(pub: Gollancz, 2020. 312 page hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK only). ISBN: 978-1-473-23137-5)

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