Friday 16 May 2008

Indigo by Graham Joyce, plus the Platypus

This book is curiously difficult to review, or even to describe. It is set in the contemporary world, and features Englishman Jack Chambers, who has been summoned to Chicago to execute the will of a controlling and manipulative father he has loathed, but not seen, for some twenty years. He discovers that he is required to publish a manuscript in which his father lays out in detail the protracted physical and mental preparation required to see the colour Indigo (that mythical seventh colour of the spectrum) and thereby gain not only a different form of seeing but also the ability to avoid being seen by others.

Chambers meets his disturbingly attractive half-sister for the first time since she was a young girl. They both travel to Rome, his father's second home, in order to dispose of his property and trace the principal beneficiary of the will. What follows is a strange mixture of mystery, tension, drama, sex and romance, as Chambers struggles to discover what his father had been up to, work out whether the manuscript held genuine knowledge or was just delusional, and incidentally sort out his own life.

Indigo is worth reading if only for the atmospheric quality of the writing:

"You didn't look at Rome, you slipped into it and it parted around you like warm water. History lay everywhere, like mineral mud on a river bed, or broken and glistening as it broke the surface. Antiquity waved vast anemone clusters and drew your attention to submerged treasure, or to a sunken rock which on close inspection turned out to be artefact. There was no more pristine, native rock. Everything had been mined, carved, sculpted, worked, improved, discarded, reworked into a lustrous flow. In Rome you needed a set of gills to move through history, and if you tried to come up for air you found that even the sky was seeded with the dust of ancient brick. It was cloying and sweet and pearly with reference. Every evening the city crumbled under the weight of its own memory; each morning it was rebuilt with the fresh hot brick of making the past anew."

This is not a conventional SFF novel; it is in fact rather hard to categorise. I found it well worth the time spent on it, though. My only complaint is that Penguin chose to publish it in what looks like an eight-point font, which is almost too small for comfortable reading.
As a follow-up to my post here (25 April) about the New Scientist's feature on evolution, another development covered in the magazine (10 May) is the sequencing of the genome of the Australian duck-billed platypus. This has revealed some intriguing information, as might be expected of an animal which combines a bird-like beak with fur, and lays eggs while producing milk for its young. As expected, its genome contains a mixture of mammalian and reptile features. The sequence for determining sex is more like a bird's than a mammal's, yet the milk-producing genes are similar to humans and cows. The conclusion is that milk-producing evolved before the ability to have live offspring.

Perhaps my marsupial saurians in Scales weren't quite so implausible after all!


Bill Garthright said...

Tony, I missed this blog entry earlier, but I just wanted to comment on the sample of that 'atmospheric quality of the writing.' I haven't read that book, and I normally prefer more straightforward storytelling (minus the flowery prose), but he sure got the description of Rome right, as far as I'm concerned.

That's really how I felt in Italy - in much of Europe, to tell the truth - as if there was history in every glance. Every time I turned a corner, there was some new treasure to catch my eye. His description of this is perfect, IMO.

I suppose I've become less patient as I get older, less willing to take my time enjoying a book's descriptive passages. But these things can still reach me, if I give them a chance.

Thanks for the review of an interesting book that I've never heard of and will probably never read. (I mean that. I enjoyed your post.)


Anthony G Williams said...

Thanks for that Bill.

I am reminded of a visit to England by a distant relative who had lived in New Zealand all her life. She commented that what struck her most whenever she visited England was the great sense of age; not just in the towns and villages, but the fact that virtually every part of the countryside had been worked over by people, time and time again.