This novel has had a most unusual gestation. The author, a journalist, describes his experience of major heart surgery in 2015, followed by post-operative complications which led to three weeks in a coma. He had been warned by the surgeon that some memory loss might occur, which was surely an understatement. On returning home, he checked his laptop and discovered the text of this novel. He had written it in a seven-week period not long before his operation, but had no recollection of doing so. I received a publicity email from the publishers - something I normally ignore - but in this case I thought the plot sounded interesting so they supplied me with a copy to review.
So, what is it about? It is set in present day England and features Steve Diamond, a thirty-something unemployed journalist who has terminal leukemia. Fortunately, he has two loyal supporters; his girlfriend Noreen, and Toby, a life-long friend who works at the Porton Down government research centre. Toby is increasingly fed up with his job and intends to leave, and one day after rather too much alcohol has flowed he reveals the big secret he has been working on: a mysterious device of World War 2 invented by Wernher von Braun and known as Die Glocke (the bell).
[I should say at this point that, not taking any interest in conspiracy fantasies featuring mythical Nazi wonder-weapons which could have changed the course of the war, I had never heard of “Die Glocke” but a couple of minutes on Wiki told me all I needed to know.]
Anyway, in this story Die Glocke is a large bell-shaped machine with room for one person to sit inside. It has a complicated control panel, a mysterious power source and its function is not obvious. After the war, it was found and transported to the USA and von Braun provided some information about it, but much remained mysterious. An experiment revealed that it was a time machine; but one which was lethally dangerous to travel in, the only person who tried it dying of leukemia not long afterwards. There were also major concerns about the risks of inadvertently changing history, so when the British government expressed interest in examining the machine, the Americans were relieved to be rid of it, which is why it is now sitting in a secure store at Porton Down, under threat of destruction.
Steve realised that as he had terminal leukemia anyway, he was the obvious person to try it. He particularly wanted to extend the lives of two of his heroes who had died young: Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde. He reckoned that he could do this without any dire consequences, acting “for the good of all”. He discovers, however, that life is not as co-operative as that…
I noted a couple of coincidences involving other books I have read recently: one is V2 by Robert Harris, in which Wernher Von Braun is a major character; the other is Mark Lawrence's Impossible Times series, in which the protagonist also has cancer and is also involved with time travel. Fortunately, the plot of that series is entirely different from Ross’s story, but one other comparison is the writing style. Ross and Lawrence both write very well in a similar style, with a thread of sardonic humour lightening what could otherwise be depressing tales. Put it this way; if you enjoyed Impossible Times, which I did - very much - then I predict that you will like this one. Ross’s story takes its time to get going and is always more philosophical than action-orientated, but that is an observation, not a criticism. It held my attention from start to finish and I’m certainly hanging on to my copy for another read sometime.