No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, March 07, 2009

#13: Quicksilver -- Christie Dickason

Again the clamouring, jagged glassy edges of sound, the piercing smells. Again the fist that crushed the air from his chest, and again the belch of terror that lodged at the base of his throat. The invasion of his body. The shifting of his muscles on his skull. The beast. (p. 180)

Second in the trilogy that began with The Lady Tree, the events of Quicksilver actually parallel those of the previous book, and cast a different light on the enmity between John Nightingale (last seen reclaiming his birthright) and Edward Malise, implicated in the murder of Nightingale's parents.

The novel's title references alchemy, which correlates mercury with the soul, and may also indicate the symbolic role of the Malise Salt, an immense ornate family heirloom that Ned Malise vows to see returned to his ancestral home, Tarleton Hall. Primarily, though, the novel's about Malise's soul -- and the ways in which it's altered by his affliction.

Quicksilver is set in the early seventeenth century, in Holland, Flanders and England. Orphaned Ned Malise grows up in Amsterdam in the care of his grandmother (widow of a Catholic martyr), penniless gentry, singing in brothels and musicos, very much in the shadow of his daredevil older brother Francis. Ned wants nothing more than to be apprenticed to the local luthier, to make lutes and make music (and ideally to marry his childhood sweetheart, Marika). Francis, however, has more ambitious notions, and the brothers travel to England in pursuit of fame, fortune and restoration to the nobility.

After a blow to the head, Ned finds himself subject to sudden transformations: he howls, he sees the world very differently, his very body changes painfully into something Other. He's convinced he's become a werewolf -- and those around him agree. You have been bound to the nature of a wolf and carry it with you. Your fur is on the inside, unseen. (p. 446)

Ned tries to find a cure, an explanation, a palliative: meeting Dutch anatomist Maurits van Egmond, he hopes that science can provide some remedy for his condition. A late-night conversation with Maurits' oddly serene assistant Janni -- an intriguing character who deserves more narrative, more story -- provides some insight into what it is to live as Other in Dutch society. But Maurits' thirst for knowledge soon surpasses the bounds of decency, and Ned finds himself fleeing for his life, hunted by mastiffs, accused of murder and worse.

There's a marvellous moment in this novel, a pivot point when the narrative voice changes from third person to first. By the end of the novel both he and John Nightingale (not to mention Marika and Janni) have left behind the familiar and the old, and are facing new beginnings. I had no doubt that [Nightingale and I] would stumble here and there on the road back from enmity, but we were already bound by being fellow travellers upon it. (p. 573)

Dickason's prose is luminously lucid, deceptively plain ('his thoughts heaved like kittens drowning in a sack') and the descriptions of Ned's altered states are vivid and immediate. With good reason: in the afterword, Dickason explains that Ned's affliction is not lyncanthropism but Temporal Lobe Epilepsy -- which she suddenly developed in her thirties. (Dickason also discusses this here.) She writes of 'altered sensory and emotional states' and notes: As in Ned's case, when not possessed by your beast, you are entirely yourself. So far as you are allowed by everybody else. (p. 589)

Quicksilver is a dialogue between art, science, faith and superstition, through the eyes of a protagonist for whom music reigns supreme: music as performance, therapy and redemption, music as the thing that distinguishes the soul.

I'm really looking forward to the third in the trilogy, The Memory Palace ...

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