PrintE-mail Written by Michael Coldwell

Ever struggled to get back in the swing of things after a long-haul journey? It’s a wonder we bother going abroad at all, what with all the time, money and sanity the traveling part of it drains out of us. The new novel from Christopher Priest concerns itself with the monkey business of foreign transit; the time zone problems, the dehumanising netherworld of departures and arrivals, the bizarre regulations, the deeply unfriendly processes (ever encountered those hideous robotic passport scanners at Stanstead?), but develops the story potential of these necessary butt-pains in intriguing and unexpected ways.

Alesandro Sussken is a gifted young composer growing up under the rule of an oppressive fascist junta. When his older brother is drafted against his will for military service somewhere within the mysterious, uncharted island group Sussken can just about glimpse from the attic window of his family home, he feels a strong calling to journey there himself. This he eventually does as part of a band of musicians who are granted rare access to the islands for a concert tour, unaware that the many boat trips involved will have unforeseen, life-changing effects both on him and those he loves.

In his first-person narrator, Priest vividly conjures the inner voice of a serious-minded artist who is compelled by instinct to return to the islands, in the face of the dangers they pose to him, in search of answers to questions that seem to reach out from the very rock itself. This essentially lonely pursuit is punctuated by a series of encounters with a mysterious bunch known as ‘adepts’, a lethargic cohort of knife-flashing weirdos who hang out at every arrival gate and who become an increasingly significant presence. It also helps no end that Sussken is a dab hand with the violin.

The Gradual returns Priest to the Dream Archipelago, the enigmatically musical topography he’s mapped and explored in a number of previous novels and short stories although it should be added that no prior knowledge of these stories is required to enjoy this slow-burning excursion.  His character-pool here is small and deftly realised while the ‘gradual’ of the title is an absolute beauty of a concept, artfully unveiled over the course of the novel until you’re as immersed in its mind-expanding mystery as the protagonist.

Quietly compelling but not without some well-timed emotive fireworks, The Gradual is a captivating odyssey from a true visionary. Take it with you the next time you set off abroad; it may just get you there before you know it.



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