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

Saturday, January 22, 2011

2011/04: The Deadly Space Between -- Patricia Duncker

... the parameters of my world had become fluid and unstable. I had always been solitary, self-contained and independent. But I had been held in place by Isobel. We were like mercury in the porch thermometer; one rose and fell in balance with the other. (p. 150)

Toby Hawke is eighteen, friendless, completely alienated from teachers and classmates: he's been raised by his unmarried mother Isobel -- Iso for short -- who's only fifteen years older than him. (They're often mistaken for siblings.) Iso's estranged from her parents, but remains close to her formidable Aunt Luce and Luce's partner Liberty. Toby, mature in some respects but barely post-adolescent in others, has no father and no father-figure: his relationship with his mother is close, intimate, and when she introduces a new suitor -- the mysterious German scientist Roehm -- Toby's world view ... well, I'm fairly sure that amid the many snow- and ice-related metaphors and similes that colour this novel, there's one about shaking a snowglobe. That's what happens to Toby's world, not least because Roehm almost seems to be courting him -- perhaps as a way to Iso's heart. Toby finds Roehm fascinating, and the feeling seems mutual.

But Roehm remains mysterious. How does he know the layout of their kitchen without ever having been there before? How did he manage to buy perfect Christmas presents for people he'd never met? (How, for that matter, did he get Toby's password-protected files off his old computer and onto the new laptop that was Roehm's gift to Toby?) Why has Toby never seen him in daylight? (The answer to this last is not what you might be thinking.)

Toby's new laptop holds the key: there's a URL he doesn't recognise in his Favourites folder, and when he visits the site he discovers, or experiences, something that precipitates a crisis. After this point, the novel gains momentum like an avalanche, plunging headlong to a surreal denouement.

The Deadly Space Between is dense with allusion and motifs that, with each beat (each metaphor, reference, image) reinforce the claustrophobic and chilling ambience. There are references to Freud and Hamlet, to Weber's supernatural opera Die Freischutz, to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, to Prospero Alpini and a work he never wrote. (It's not, as some reviewers seem to believe, an attempt to rework or reimagine any of the above.) Duncker's pacing is enviable: all the necessary information is there, but Toby doesn't recognise it and so nor do we.

There are some unsettling scenes in this novel. They are intentionally unsettling: I'm quite appalled at the readers who seem to think they're meant to be sexy or racy.

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