Friday, 18 March 2011

Book Review | Loss of Separation by Conrad Williams

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Commercial pilot Paul Roan is in command of a Boeing 777 when it is involved in a near miss. Nerves shot, he resigns and re-launches his life running a small hotel in a coastal village with his girlfriend, Tamara.

On the day they move to their new home, Paul is hit by a speeding car. Emerging six months later from a coma, he discovers that Tamara has left him, and the villagers, astonished by his cheating of death, now see him as a talisman. They bring him secrets too awful to deal with themselves. He burns the things they bring him, wishing he could rid himself of his own darkness. He is suffering from terrible dreams of a crippled black airliner screaming through the night, its pitted engines streaked with carbon and blood. He knows that, somehow, this jet – and its terrible cargo – is coming for him.


Having decimated the United Kingdom to a man in the supremely unsettling Onefending off in so doing such genre heavyweights as Stephen King and Joe Abercrombie to take home last year's August Derleth award for Best Novel at the BFAs, Loss of Separation sees Conrad Williams return to similarly disturbing, if somewhat overfamiliar territory, devastating one man in the United Kingdom rather than all-but.

Once upon a time, so the story goes, pilot Paul Roan lived the dream. In times of yore a young boy in awe of the power and the majesty of aircraft as they chalked the skies above, Paul became every inch the man he'd imagined: he pushed Boeing 777s into the sun-spattered horizon for a fat wage-packet and dated a gorgeous flight attendant.

That was until a near miss left him "a shattered man." (p.30) Shellshocked throughout the fallout, Paul loses his license to fly; his dreams lie in tatters before him. But as she did through the good times, so too does the lovely Tamara stick with Paul through the bad. That is, until the bad turns still worse. When lightning strikes twice, their plans to chart out an idyllic new life for themselves by running a Bed & Breakfast on the Suffolk coast together - a clean break from broken dreams and ambitions - take a calamitous hit. Paul is the victim of an horrific hit and run which leaves him comatose for six months. And when he awakens, he has nothing: even Tamara has left his bedside, and his life, without a word.

Paul is hardly even half a man when Williams introduces us, for Loss of Separation picks up in the immediate aftermath of all the awfulness our woebegone protagonist has had to suffer through -- though I dare say it's far from over yet. Locals, you see, have taken to bringing Paul all their dirty little secrets, for him to dispose of. Unable to believe his luck, such as it is, they see him as a sin eater - a fascinating concept I wish Williams had taken a touch further - and Paul has little enough to hold onto, so monkey see, monkey do: whilst struggling to reconcile himself with the fact of Tamara's abandonment, he takes to burning broken toys and love letters in small pyres on the Southwick shores.

The horror of Loss of Separation is initially the horror of a man twisted into a shape and a space he no longer recognises. Paul finds himself surrounded by other survivors, one of whose injuries moves him to reflect that "We were strangers to ourselves. Our shapes had changed. Things were gone. Things were added. It would take a long time to become comfortable with our physicality again, if we ever would." (p.138) Together with his unspeakable injuries, Paul's tormented convalescence rather put me in mind of Edgar Freemantle, the similarly shattered protagonist of Duma Key -- which I should add I believe to be Stephen King's best novel since his own accident. But whereas art was what helped Edgar edge along the road to recovery, Paul is driven by a more intimate thing: the enigma of Tamara's vanishing act. He resolves to discover the whys and wherefores of her heart-wrenching absence... though someone, or perhaps something - perhaps the hideous cruciform gull he keeps seeing - seems determined to keep him from uprooting the truth.

Loss of Separation is not a particularly lengthy novel, yet I feel its narrative would have been better served were it shorter still. Williams simply takes too long to get to the meat of the thing, and though the gristle is grim enough, it feels at times in dire need of direction. An unfortunate surplus of characters obstruct the development of those that aren't simply ciphers, and though the horror of it all comes front and centre eventually, I fear it's too long in the coming.

But do push through. Because when things finally crystallise, Loss of Separation approaches the heights of the finest horror fiction. The nightmares which have lurked about the narrative's fringes begin to encroach upon Paul's already-tenuous grip on reality. It becomes progressively harder to unpick the fantasy from the fact and the fact from the fantasy, and the thrilling - indeed surprisingly optimistic - climax gives welcome weight to much of what's felt frivolous before.

There is in the interim a violence to William's language which worries its way home more immediately, and a canny sense of the visceral, the unknowable. What with the BFA for Best Novel, this is decidedly Not News, but the man on form is an absolute master of his craft, and though various of its aspects take some time to truly appreciate, Loss of Separation is in the end an evocative, nightmare-inducing narrative I have only the few aforementioned quibbles in recommending. It's no One, no -- but it's certainly no nothing.


Loss of Separation
by Conrad Williams

UK Publication: March 2011, Solaris (PB)
US Publication: March 2011, Solaris (PB)

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