The Rationalist by Warwick Collins
There is a certain embarrassment attendant in reading this novel. It has nothing to do with the writer or his writing but with the fact that the cover carries a quote from the Daily Mail describing it as 'An erotic, beautifully crafted novel'. What with the bodice ripping cover design it is the sort of thing that can give the person opposite you on the Tube entirely the wrong idea.
Silas Grange is a young doctor on the South coast of England during the eighteenth century. A Man of Reason, his life under control, he goes about his business with a cool detachment. This is evoked brilliantly in the opening chapter as Grange removes the arm of a seaman. His mind is on the task as the blood spurts and the stump he is removing thuds into the waiting receptacle.
Grange's world is turned upside down when is summoned by Mrs Quill, a local widow and somewhat mysterious figure. She speaks frankly to him about the moment in her life when she 'awoke' physically. And from this turning point she has developed a proposition for him. 'If one man could bring a brief delight to certain women, he could waken the sleeping'. And so The Rationalist is initiated into a world of pleasure and becomes not a rake, but a man providing Enlightenment of the soul to the women Mrs Quill introduces.
Sex is notoriously difficult to write and Collins keeps these scenes to minimum. There is however one fantastic section where Grange, whilst receiving fellatio, delivers a lecture on the church music of Thomas Tallis. Collins' focus is much more on the effect this awakening has on the young doctor himself. This is where the quality of his writing really shows. Returning home by carriage after one of his assignations:
A fervent appetite gripped him, rising beneath his ribs, cold and sharp. Ignoring the knives and silver platter, he raised the leg of lamb to his mouth and, pausing momentarily, tore the meat directly with his teeth...Eating was not so much a pleasure as the evisceration of appetite. As though he had lost his sense of detachment, he now merely gave in to his hunger...he experienced something like a joy in the fleshly things.
Flicking through the images in his mind of the night he has just spent Grange realises the impact it is all having on his values:
It is this that he had feared, precisely this cold appreciation, the Minotaur in himself. He hoped perhaps that a love would one day save him from detachment. But what was proved appeared to be the opposite; that detachment will dissolve all love.
What he doesn't suspect is the betrayal that has yet to come. Collins deals with his subject with the kind of cool detachment that is appropriate and his tale of awakening is all the more powerful for the slow progress with which Grange opens his eyes to the world around him. Filled with striking images and metaphors this is a novel which, whilst never reaching the distilled brilliance of Gents (the other book of his I have read, reviewed here), tempts you to move on to its sequel The Marriage of Souls.