Magazine article The Spectator

And If Thou Wilt, Remember

Magazine article The Spectator

And If Thou Wilt, Remember

Article excerpt

DISTANCE by Colin Thubron

Heinemann, L15.99, pp. 218 The protagonists of Colin Thubron's more recent novels - A Cruel Madness (1984), Falling (1989), and Turning Back the Sun (1991) - were tormented by that ambivalent mixture, memory and desire. Each hankered after the irretrievable: a lost time, a lost woman. At the start of Distance, Thubron's narrator has lost even remembrance of such things. Edward Sanders, a 30-ish astronomer, emerges from a fugue state to find himself alone at a restaurant table in a town he does not recognise; his last two years are blank. The nearest hospital diagnoses retrograde amnesia caused by `something intolerable'. Ascertaining the nature of that something provides the novel's mainspring.

As predicted, the missing pieces soon begin to return, earliest first, in erratic spurts, progressively drawing closer to the origin of Edward's trauma. On the way to that denouement, Thubron maintains and manipulates suspense with notable finesse. From the outset, Edward is hazily aware of 'her': a woman, central to his existence, of whom all knowledge falls entirely within the blank. Guided by the address on an envelope, he makes his way to an unfamiliar cottage on the Dorset coast which he shares, it transpires, with a painter called Naomi. A note in the kitchen tells him she is off on a commission. Narrator and reader await Naomi's homecoming with much expectation, only to discover - a dextrous touch of authorial misdirection - that she is not 'her'.

Meanwhile, Edward has learned that the blank encompasses the death of his mother, remembered as a vigorous 'monolith'. Days pass before the awful particulars of her physical decline -- wasting away from hepatic cancer - jolt back into his consciousness. He recovers, too, the identity of 'her': Jacqueline Everard, a colleague at the observatory. He knows they were lovers. …

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