Saturday, 6 October 2007

diminishing returns

The Marriage of Souls
by Warwick Collins

This book is the second part of a projected sequence of novels set in the eighteenth century which began with The Rationalist (reviewed here). Continuing the story of Silas Grange, a young doctor in Lymington who has been left physically shattered after an affair of the heart (and body) with the mysterious Celia Quill. For those who have read the first book the first 150 pages are a pain, as the story is recounted. Alternating between third person narration and letters written by Grange's colleague Harwood to a silent correspondent, this limiting structure is a further annoyance. It is almost 200 pages in that we get the first bit of interest; Harwood announces to Grange that he had known Mrs Quill previously, that in fact she had been his mistress.

This kick-starts things a little, beginning with a couple of punches which Grange metes out to Harwood's face. The revelations do not end there and Grange begins some amateur detective work to discover more about Mrs Quill and to find where she may be now. Slowly, Harwood does some detective work of his own as he pieces together what may have happened between his colleague and former mistress in the first novel. That is not to say that there is enmity between the two men, for these are both rational men struggling to work through their emotions.

Rumbling along beside the internal examinations of these two men is the story of the local community, in particular the workers of the local salt furnaces which burn along the coastal horizon and serve as a symbol of the increasing heat and pressure of the two men's passions. This is where Collins is strongest; the alien imposition of these structures as they continue burning into the winter season, how this affects not only the look of the local area but the people who make up the community. As the pressure builds we feel that things are moving to a climax. Where we want the novel to head of course is the reunification of Silas Grange and Celia Quill. But do they meet again? Well after 480 pages one would hope so.

Hargood had said of Mrs Quill's absence, 'It is like a novel, sir, which should leave some presence with you, some aftertaste, which shall remain widowed away in the soul.'

It is a brave thing to write a novel and leave the most intriguing character absent for the vast majority. It is Harwood again who says that a ghost is 'nothing more or less than an intense absence' and Mrs Quill does haunt this novel but, like all ghosts, hers is not a substantial presence and I think that the novel suffers for it. Collins writing is at its strongest when he is describing landcape, not only the coastal areas around Lymington but also his description of London which, for a city boy like me, is fantastic.

... the rhythmn of walking brought a sense of equalibrium. Constantly moving, pursuing the narrow intimacies of the streets, he had a compulsion to walk off the rest of the evening. The plan of that poor area seemed to become part of his mind, a map of his restlessness. The streets where like some grammar which he knew but did not understand, a vast shadowy web which he almost felt that he could conjugate without thinking: the riverside and its ropewalks, the rotting hulks that lay there, the strange hinterland of old houses and warehouses and odd, out-of-the-way homesteads, with their own large barns that seemed always closed and locked, and the strange silent people with their carts and transport moving in and out. He wandered among them unseeing, protected from their suspicions by his own manifest blindness towards their activities, his mind's eye instead focused inwards, on the dark...


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