I don’t think I’m really the target audience for Christopher Priest’s novels. Every time I read one I find it reviewed in a bunch of prestigious outlets praising its “spare prose” and “austere” style. Adam Roberts calls Priest’s 2016 novel The Gradual “amazing, haunting, eloquently baffling and clever”. Which…it was fine? I quite like the concept of the Dream Archipelago? but I certainly wouldn’t call it mind-blowing. I just don’t see it.
The protagonist of The Gradual is Alessandro Sussken, a musician and composer living in a grey and authoritarian state called Glaund. Glaund and the occupants of the other major landmass in this secondary world, Faiandland, are locked in perpetual war, although all the actual fighting happens on a faraway southern continent. Growing up, Sussken can see from his window a group of islands that are never spoken of. They are part of the Dream Archipelago, of whose existence it is forbidden to speak in Glaund.
A few years later, things have thawed a little, and Sussken’s invited on a tour of the Archipelago with a Glaundian orchestra. When he returns after what has been to him a matter of weeks, though, he finds that many years have passed in Glaund. His wife has given up on him and his parents have died. Eventually, he returns to the Archipelago, fleeing Glaund’s oppressive government, and learns a bit more about the strange way time works there, and how travellers can take advantage of it.
I think my inability to connect with the book probably has something to do with demographics. Put bluntly, this is a novel by an old white guy about an old white guy, and gods know we’ve got plenty of them. Actually there are two things here: first, it is manifestly not the case that all books are equally comprehensible to all ages; I think The Gradual, being in part a novel about ageing and the slow vagaries of time, probably best appeals to people who are at least the other side of 30 to me. Second, “old white man who is also an Artist” is probably the least interesting character sketch I can think of. It’s been done. Instead of solitary geniuses chasing their muses, I’d like to read about artists and creators embedded in their communities and drawing strength from them; I’m not particularly interested in bourgeois individualism. In the end, I’m far more interested in the world we glimpse behind Sussken: the Dream Archipelago, in all its elusive glory; its eccentricities of geography and travel and time. I’d happily read Priest’s The Islanders again, which puts the archipelago front and centre in a mock gazetteer. But The Gradual is not really My Thing.