27/08/2009

The Weight of Recollection

There are many advantages to life as a literary scout, not least amongst them the opportunity to read many fine works of fiction, frequently weeks or months before they hit the bookshop shelves. This is offset by having to plough through any number of duds, without the usual consolation of being able to fling the wretched thing aside in despair at yet another formulaic plot, or yet more turgid prose. A lesser evil is the occasional forgetfulness that such a rigorous regime can impose, wherein the basic information of title and author becomes divorced from the content of the book itself, leaving in its place a nagging notion that the novel in question is probably good, or bad, but with no indication of why such an idea has wormed its way into your consciousness.

Having moved on from scout camp, it took a slew of press coverage following her Booker nomination to remind me that I had actually read Anne Enright's The Gathering (although at least this recollection came before she eventually went on to win the thing). I say, however, that this is a lesser evil, as it does on occasion allow you to revisit a work that is well worth a second engagement, away from the pressures of time and a swiftly pieced-together reader's report*. One such is Simon Ing's The Weight of Numbers, which I came across in my local, hatefully named, Idea Store. (It's a library, ferchrissakes!) In a further example of the mental disorganisation that can stem from reading too much in too short a period of time, I was aware of him primarily as a science writer, having read the proposal for his The Eye: A Natural History (Bloomsbury, 2007), although I have yet to read the finished article. The part of my brain which attempts to keep track with the review sections was reminded me that he is also a novelist, and had received good notices, so I thought I'd give it a try.

It took only a few pages for a creeping sense of familiarity to set in, but by that time I was hooked for the second time. The Weight of Numbers (Atlantic, 2006) is a tour de force, both stylistically and structurally, encompassing some eighty years and three continents, and populated by a host of characters who, no matter how ephemeral, don't fail to convince. It would be unfair to attempt to summarise the plot in any great detail, both because it would be impossible to do justice to the tapestry of timelines, and as it would deny the reader the chance to nod appreciatively as each narrative element slides inexorably into place.

Focusing in the main on three characters, a mentally unstable maths whizz, a jaded ex-teacher in Africa, and a former child star nursing an eating disorder, The Weight of Numbers weaves together their disparate stories, whose most evident common link comes in the form of a disreputable seaman. In the hands of a lesser writer, the myriad coincidences and connections would seem at best trite, at worst implausible, but Ings handles them with aplomb, each fresh revelation adhering to the novel's internal logic, resulting in a mesh strengthened rather than undermined by its complexity.

It should not be implied that book is, as a result, a difficult read. In keeping with an underlying theme of fractal complexity, Ings is as confident with the minutiae as with the whole, each perfectly weighted sentence drawing the reader on to the next, and from one convincingly realised location to another. The overall impression is that of the clich├ęd perception of chaos theory, as events on one side of the globe have unforeseeable effects on lives and events many years and miles hence, but this is chaos mastered by inevitability, and marshalled into an edifice of wisdom and poignancy.

It seems that Ings is working on his next novel; he's remaining rather tight-lipped about the prospects, so in the interim I will have to content myself with finally getting around to catching up with The Eye. Going by his prose, and the proposal, it seems unlikely to disappoint.

*And yes, I'm aware of the irony inherent in the fact that I'm now reporting on this book for the second time.

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