by Ray Robinson
The working of the mind is one of the key themes of contemporary English fiction, the success of such disparate novels as Ian McEwan's SATURDAY and Mark Haddon's THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME demonstrating a popular appetite for stories which relate character not only to psychology, but also to pathology, and plot to the effects of hormone, chromosome and electrical impulse. Ray Robinson's fine debut novel – which was submitted as his Phd. creative writing thesis - is a welcome addition to this burgeoning field, and deserves to be widely read
His theme is epilepsy, temporal lobe epilepsy: at once how it affects his narrator, Lily O'Connor, and how its effects may be used to construct and interrupt a narrative. As the novel opens, Lily, living hand to mouth in a northern seaside town, learns of the death of her estranged, abusive, mother. Energised by this and the brief return of one brother to her life, she sets off to track down her last sibling, another brother last heard of in London. What follows is a straightforward quest, narrated in Lily's pithy and engagingly unsentimental voice, which balances her purging of her abused childhood with her unglamorous adventures among the lost souls of the metropolis.
If the arc of the narrative is clear and conventional, then Robinson's technique, making use of Lily's epilepsy, is anything but. Various technical devices – hallucinatory flashback, downward-counting chapter numeration, pages of jagged typography, icons of Lily's pills showing time passing – serve to illustrate how Lily's fits shape her life and perceptions. Hours and days vanish, and have to be reconstructed from others' unreliable accounts. Almost as powerful are the different medications she is prescribed. The faceless medics, whom Lily laconically calls the "bright sparks", are the flipside of McEwan's Henry Perowne: happiest when telling her what is best for her, they are taken aback when she trespasses on their areas of expertise, using medical language and reeling off the history of her medications and dosages.
The novel embodies Lily's ambivalent relationship with her condition. Objecting strongly (and who wouldn't?) to be being labelled "an epileptic", she nevertheless defines herself in relation to the condition. "I realized I was scared that if they took my fits away, there'd be nothing left" she tells us, and the novel depends on this tension too. She repeatedly uses images and metaphors of electricity – static, lightning, switches – to express the impact of the fits, and when an electrician appears in her flat, we know that we have to read a significance into his job.
For all of its virtues, this is not a subtle novel: the tight construction occasionally reads like a study in balancing themes, action and relations. Every development is counterpointed, and the ending neatly wraps up half of the plotlines whilst leaving just the right amount unresolved. Lily's narration is punchy, yet rarely beautiful, and the research hours which Robinson has clearly put in occasionally obtrude. But it is a coherent, powerful, and passionate work, and while many PhD theses will be as educational, few will entertain as this one.