The Gradual by Christopher Priest (book review).

August 11, 2017 | By | Reply More

Christopher Priest is a very stylish writer. Not only is he able to tell an enthralling story without the verbosity of some modern writers, he fills the prose with subtlety and reaches out to the intellect of the reader. ‘The Gradual’ is a very fine book.

Priest first visited the Dream Archipelago in a series of stories written between 1978 and 1999 when they were collected together in a volume bearing that title. The Archipelago consists of thousands of islands mostly scattered across an equatorial sea. Although many have names, it has proved impossible to map them. No attempt provides the same pattern but each island has its own characteristics. The 2011 novel, ‘The Islanders’, is written as a gazetteer of some of the islands throughout which a narrative unfolds. The sequence begins to show in more detail the anomalies visitors have to contend with. In ‘The Gradual’, some of these are explored rather than explained.

This novel is narrated by Alesandro Sussken. He is a native of the continental country of Glaund. His country has been at war with its neighbour for a long time. Tired of bombing each other’s civilian populations, they have agreed to fight the war on the uninhabited southern continent. Each youth is expected to do military service and Alesandro’s older brother is waved off with the expectation that he will return in four years. It doesn’t happen. Alesandro gets on with his life, making a name for himself as a composer. It is this that gains him a place on a cultural exchange tour of part of the Archipelago. It is only when he returns after the tour of nine weeks that he discovers there is a problem. In Glaund, eighteen months have passed. His house is closed up with bills left unpaid, his wife has moved out and his parents have died. Alesandro is philosophical. He cannot understand what has happened but there is nothing can do about it. So he gets on with his life, composing and teaching.

Then, at the age of fifty, he gets an offer he cannot refuse. The Generalissima, leader of the country, honours him by asking him to create the music for a gala celebration. He will be paid more money than he has ever earned in his life. She outlines the pattern that she wants his composition to take. Refusal is likely to be taken as traitorous behaviour and, since the country is under martial law, this probably means execution. Alesandro accepts the money, transfers as much as he can to an off-shore account and flees into the Dream Archipelago.

As Alessandro begins his travels, he starts to understand what happened all those years ago on the concert tour. The Archipelago is threaded through with a gradual. This speeds up or slows down the passage of time. He needs the help of the young people he noticed hanging around the Shelterate Building that acted as customs and immigration on his previous visit. These guides help adjust the time lost and gained by circuitous routes so that overall expected time progression is maintained.

‘The Gradual’ has a tightly controlled narrative, where some of the plot twists are as unexpected as the gradual itself. Some follow logically from the narrative but Priest is the kind of writer who will happily play with the minds of characters and readers. To explain here the themes that run through the Archipelago would be to spoil the satisfaction of the reader as they work it out.

Alessandro developed a fascination with the islands of the Dream Archipelago from the moment he glimpsed the nearest from an attic window, even though the history of his country denied their existence. As a reader, I hope you will become equally fascinated by them. This is a thoroughly enjoyable novel.

Pauline Morgan

August 2017

(pub: Gollancz. 346 page paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK), $15.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-473-20055-5)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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