The Gradual by Christopher Priest

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Reviewed by David Harris

This was the first of Christopher Priest’s books that I’d read. While I gather from other reviews that it’s particularly accessible for him and so probably a good place to begin, I am still dismayed that I’ve missed out on such a good writer for so long. I’ll put that right soon.

The Gradual is the latest of a collection – not really a series – of stories (some short, some longer) that includes the motif of the ‘Dream Archipelago’, a mysterious and, it seems, ultimately unknowable group of islands that feature in different ways. I don’t know whether they are intended to be a self-consistent feature, or more of an idea, a mythology. In this book, at any rate, they form a band of islands which encircles the whole world. They are unmappable, idiosyncratic, home to a myriad dialects and seem to stretch from the equator to colder, more Northerly climes. For our hero, Alesandro Sussken, from the moment he glimpses the nearest islands as a child, they represent an alluring Other, a place to escape.(and he needs to escape). Even the names seem to hold promise: Dianme, Manlayl, Derril, Callock, Gannten, Unner, Leyah, Cheoner.

Sussken is a composer, living in the drab, grey country of Glaund, a state ruled by a junta and perpetually at war with its neighbour, Faiandland. We are told that there is little freedom in Gland. one must renew identity documents every three months and report to the police if away from home more than three nights. Everyone is required to carry a certain amount of cash. The entire country is under curfew on certain days, and everyone must be assigned to a church whether religious or not. (Priest is studiedly vague about the religion of this church or churches).

Military service is compulsory. At the start of the book, Sussken’s beloved older brother is called up by the army and much of the subsequent story is a quest to come to terms with this, or to find him again. The grim background of Glaund is vividly conveyed, but that said, Sussken seems to flourish, building his musical reputation and subject to no censure even when he dares name a musical piece after one of the forbidden islands (they’re not supposed to be referred to at all).

Indeed he is even, eventually, permitted to join a cultural trip to the Archipelago when relations thaw somewhat. The book is necessarily much concerned with travel, both the practicalities – tickets, luggage, accommodation, Customs procedures – and the psychological effects of exposure to different cultures and places – so Sussken’s life isn’t as cloistered as you might fear or even expect, given the realities of life in Glaund.

It is though exclusively travel by ferry or cruise ship – there is no sign of air travel, an interesting omission in a world that seems technologically to be equivalent to ours (there are cars, Internet, CD players, plastic). From the geography, vague as it is, this obviously is not ‘our ‘world, not even an alternate timeline version, but on the other hand it is a recognisably modern society of ‘our’ kind and indeed at one level the story only works because much of what is alluded to exists in our world. For example, at one point it’s mentioned that social networking was introduced to Glaund then rapidly banned again, an allusion that only really makes sense in a world where social networking is a reality.

It’s in other words a shifty, impressionistic, world, furnished with props from ours: items and cultural things that could only originate in certain social situations that exist here and now being, used to make points or flesh out Priest’s invented reality (jazz is another example – such a context specific form of music that it rather surprises the reader when it’s mentioned, but it functions perfectly to represent the sort of music that Sussman doesn’t like: his forte is austere ultra modernist stuff). Priest hasn’t then felt the need to create a whole self-sufficient world like Tolkien, or like most fantasy writers. That shows I think a very confident, very mature writer who trusts his own ability to keep the reader’s focus where he wants it without the need for a scaffolding. A confidence that is completely justified – the scenes and events in the book have much greater resonance than would if supported by a wholly invented structure.

Things in this story are shifty in other ways too. As I said, early in the book, Sandro’s beloved brother Jacj is taken by the army. We then hear no more of him, with Sussken’s career developing, including through his extraordinary trip to the Archipelago – which changes everything – till suddenly it’s ten or more years later. For a moment I thought poor Jacj had simply been forgotten, but no: something odd is going on here and it’s the attempt to resolve the mystery that eventually – one might almost say belatedly – brings Sussken into conflict with the authorities and takes him back to the Archipelago.

His life after this is far from plain sailing (sorry, I couldn’t resists the pun). Travel between the islands has its own strange features. In a section of the book which has the island-hopping overtones of a Conrad or Somerset Maugham and allusions to a pattern of islands which are implicit in the whole setup, there are more peculiar features, indeed dangers, to travel in the archipelago. Sandro doesn’t understand them at first and he suffers the consequences. Much of this part of the book is about how he comes to an understanding of what’s going on. (It’s frustrating writing about this aspect because there are a couple of shocks in the story and it would be a shame to blunt them by giving away precisely what’s going on).

One oddity worth a mention is the bureaucracy involved in island travel. Despite them being neutral in the war and subject to little central authority, the amount of paperwork and sheer checking involved in making even short island journeys is daunting and the details sometimes mysterious – there are episodes, presumably involving searches and questionings, that are never described in detail except by how angry they make Sussken. Indeed, at one stage he seems to find it easier to slip away from – and later return to – his martial-ruled homeland than travel between two of the apparently peaceful and paradisaical islands. This is one feature we never quite get to the bottom of – a reminder perhaps that Priest’s Dream Archipelago has a deeper and wider existence than in this book.

I’m in danger of rambling on now. This book is simply so good and there is so much that one might say about it that it’s hard to know where to stop. It’s extremely readable and immersive from the first page. Its world is well portrayed and convincing. The language can be playful, fun (at one point we visit Ilkla, a ‘place of high windswept moors… where almost the entire population seemed to speak a heavily glottal patois.’ Remind you of anywhere?) There is also a whole musical dimension I haven’t even touched on, being totally unmusical myself, with Sussken’s musical tastes and development and even the milieu in which he works convincing described, including how he is influenced by the Archipelago. Indeed the book has a deep musical sensibility throughout linking people, events and places.

Above all, the book has heart. While Sussken comes over, at first, as a bit of a cold fish – fussing over his luggage, passively going along with the petty restrictions of Glaund, fumbling himself into a marriage against all expectations – he is really a deeply human character, a man who loses such a lot in a pitiless and inexplicable world that one can’t help but warm to him.

And, in keeping with that, he does thaw.

I’d recommend this book highly both as a remarkable story and a demonstration of modern fantasy at its very best, showing what can be done and how to do it.

Simply brilliant.

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David blogs at David’s Book World. A former physicist, he is married to a vicar and lives by a village green sometimes used to film Midsomer Murders, but has, against the odds, survived so far. David works in tax but promises he isn’t going to bring that up here.

Christopher Priest, The Gradual, (Orion, 2016). 978-1473200548, 352 pp, hardback.

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