The Gradual by Christopher Priest (book review).

September 15, 2016 | By | Reply More

‘The Gradual’ often known as the Grail is the oldest part of the Catholic Mass. It is from the word ‘gradus’, the Latin for ‘a step’ So I wish I had looked that up before reading the intense novel by Christopher Priest that occasionally made my eyes bleed with the effort of concentrating.


It’s true we read all things to find out information, possibly to learn a universal truth or take steps in our education leading to more reading. I’ve read a few Priest novels now and ‘The Gradual’ takes on time once more in its Archipelago Of Dreams.

A musician who travels on a tour among the islands is disturbed to find that he has been gone over a year even though his subjective time is a few weeks. His wife has left him and found another partner. It makes the rest of his life a continual journey to recover that which is lost.

Alesandro Sussken is left behind when his brother, Jacj, is called up for the army. He is fighting a war in the Southern Hemisphere. It sounds like a battle for Antarctica where no one, other than the soldiers, have to experience it. A bit like the wars we have where they are fought as proxy wars in places we never wanted to visit. It also sounds like the wars in Orwell’s ‘1984’ which may or may not be actually happening. It is never explained why Alesandro is not called up. He continues as a musician developing his art until he takes the tour that causes all the problems on his return.

The novel looks at the nature of relationships and how we are constantly seeking some experience over the horizon. It continually emphasises the seeking without explaining what he is really looking for.

I loved the description of the islands with the explanation of the culture, the movement of time and the ‘adepts’ who help Sussken on his journey. I’ve stated before that these novels themselves have a dream-like quality and they make us as readers focus on exactly what is happening, whilst trying to draw out significance from it. I think it might put some readers off and you have to know what you are getting into and accept what is offered. It feels very different to contemporary novels and it has a timeless quality. The way it is presented make is almost feel like it has been translated from another language.

Recently, quite a few books have been interested in the phenomenon of time as being a pool rather than a river and this seems to be how the oceans our hero travels move him around in time. Other books like ‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson look at a person who can manipulate time to ‘have another go’ at life. This kind of book at least gets you thinking and also makes the reader pay attention to every word in case the meaning does slip away on the tide of time. Thank goodness such books are still being written and we are not drowned in uniformity due to marketing driving the production. Hopefully, writers like Priest will continue to produce thought-provoking novels that reward our curiosity.

Sue Davies

June 2016

(pub: Gollancz. 352 page hardback. ISBN: 978-1-47320-054-8)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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