Christopher Priest, of DC’s Deathstroke “Rebirth” fame and The Prestige (which Christopher Nolan made into a film), has released his latest novel, The Gradual.
Set in an alternate world, the book follows Alesandro Sussken, a composer living in a fascist state constantly at war with another nation. The story that unfolds involves Alesandro’s struggle to create art during a war, the mystery of his brother’s decades long absence, and time travel. It’s been a three year wait for the acclaimed science fiction author’s next book, but is it good?
I have never read any of Priest’s other works, but I knew his reputation and was eager to jump into his latest novel. Many of his recent works have been set in his fictional “Dream Archipelago” series of equatorial islands and they play a large part in this one also. The protagonist and narrator, Sussken, introduced as a young boy, grows up in a dichotomous world, full of both war propaganda and his parent’s musical influence; both seem to be inevitable forces that will steer his path in life — but one day, from a top window in his parents’ home, he spies the islands that change that course.
There are many subplots to Sussken’s story, from his relationship to his wife, to his brother who is drafted to fight in the war and the decades long wait for him to return home, to the grief that slowly overcomes his parents for their missing son — but the main thrust of the story comes from Sussken’s work as a composer. Priest has done excellent research on the topic and writes with authority as he details Sussken’s creative process to write music inspired by the islands he has never visited. However, this also slowed the book down for me, especially in the first half where the amount of detail he includes makes the plot move at a methodical pace. It is dense writing, and the narrator presents his life, relationships and works, matter-of-factly. This is a trend which continues as he sets off on an excursion across the islands and the book almost reads like a travelogue.
Although I did have to push through the initial chapters, with only hints as to something out of the ordinary happening in the world, once Sussken returns home the pace picks up. After his nine week voyage ends and he returns to his country, the Republic of Gauland, he finds more than a year has passed and the repercussions that come with it. From there, Sussken’s search for his brother’s whereabouts mark him as a fugitive and his subsequent escape to the islands lead to a much livelier plot that I had been hoping for from the beginning.
The book is haunting in its exploration of what time really is and means to us, and I appreciated the story at its conclusion, as a whole. For me, though, many of the relationships Sussken has, especially his relationship with his wife, didn’t hold the emotional impact they could have because of the list-like way in which he explains the events. He talks about his feelings towards her and the guilt towards his neglect of his declining parents, but the comments seem so brief and removed, there was no real emotional impact for me.
Is it Good?
I was glad I read The Gradual and I’m tempted to read some of Priest’s other books, which have won awards and have been highly praised. Priest does a good job of tying up all the plot points he introduces by the end and doesn’t include any mysteries or red herrings or just to punch up the story.
The Gradual is a rumination on what time is to us and how we perceive it or take it for granted. I think Priest succeeded in getting his thoughts on the subject out and he’s a talented and more than competent technician and writer. However, those considering this book, hoping for a sci-fi epic, may find the pace too slow and more literary then they would have liked.