“Devotion” by Ros Barber – review

If you were being crushed by the unshakeable weight of a profound grief and you were told it could be taken away forever by a pioneering neurological procedure, would you take that opportunity?  Can the spiritual side our existence be defined by the laws of chemistry, biology and physics?  And what are the implications of a world where apparently undesirable mental states such as guilt, grief and even extreme religious views can be “cured”?  “Devotion” explores all these questions and many more besides; I found the reading of it a pretty intense emotional and intellectual exercise in the best possible sense.  You will need to have your brain well and truly engaged to get the most out of it, but the rewards are there if you do.

I really don’t want to say too much as regards the plot, as to give away any spoilers would completely derail the journey on which the story takes you, so instead I’ll simply set the scene.  Finlay Logan is a psychologist mourning the death of his daughter Flora in a tragic accident.  April is a teenage girl who blew up a bus full of students in the name of God.  Both are tormented by some traumatic – and downright hideous – events in their past, and when Dr. Logan becomes professionally involved in April’s case he realises that the mental and emotional experiences of this unfortunate girl might actually have a significant bearing on his own crumbling life.  Dr. Gabrielle Salmon is a neurologist to whom he turns for help; her extraordinary claim is that she is able to provide the experience of a direct connection with God through electrical stimulation of the brain, and that such an experience can permanently transform the lives of previously troubled individuals.  At first Logan is sceptical, but the question is already planted in his head, and the reader’s: does God have to be an external entity in order to be real?  Can He legitimately be made to feel as real to us as other emotional sensations whose existence we would never dream of denying, such as love and compassion?  From this initial proposition the novel casts its intellectual net wider and wider until the very nature of reality itself is called into question, and we are left wondering if reality is in fact just a construct of our own minds.

If this is all starting to sound like a philosophy essay I can promise you the book doesn’t read that way.  There are big philosophical questions looming undoubtedly, but there is also a story, an engaging and also very sad one about just how thoroughly grief can dismantle a human life.  Logan has a son, a wife and friends who are all in turn affected by his emotional demons, and it’s their story too.  What is more, despite the fact that on paper the subject matter sounds somewhat depressing, the author’s hypnotic and exquisite prose elevates even the most awful moments into something profound and beautiful even while the events themselves are ugly.  Ros Barber is a poet as well as a novelist and it shows.  I can’t imagine enjoying this story so much in anyone else’s hands; on every page there were turns of phrase that made me catch my breath they were so perfect.  Even if the synopsis doesn’t grab you, read it for the writing because her style is sublime.

Ultimately, the idea on which this tale hangs is not a remote and fanciful hypothesis.  In the author’s skilful hands it all suddenly seems completely plausible.  “Devotion” is actually set at an indeterminate point in the near future, a “post-Dawkins” world that has seen a gradual shift in attitudes towards science and religion; but really it could be almost any day now.  On the one hand science is the voice of reassurance, and for Logan it might just be the only thing that can help him get to where he wants to be.  On the other hand there is a faint air of menace in the apparent ease with which minds can be altered at the drop of a hat, electronically poked into supposed spiritual enlightenment.  All too recognisable too is the push to medicate against everything, even emotion itself; the drug Logan takes in order to alleviate his suffering does indeed dull the pain but also sends him into a mental stupor.  In a way the central conceit is simply the next logical step along a road that already feels familiar.

It’s been a few days now since I finished this novel and I’m still thinking about it; I have the feeling I’m going to carry on thinking about it for some time to come.  Many of the more profound questions the author declines – quite rightly – to answer; how we respond to the startling, and potentially controversial, ideas in this mesmerising book is left very much up to us.

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In celebration of a booky day!

It seems like ages since I’ve had a day off work with any spare time to actually sit and read.  Other unfortunate life events (broken boilers, the necessity to start Christmas shopping while I still have some money left) have taken over and cruelly robbed me of my book time.  Not today – today was well and truly a booky day, the first in a long time and one I’ve savoured.

It started off with a wander into town to get rid of some of my more ridiculous stilettos into an obliging charity shop….and once there it would have been rude not to browse the book section.  I do love a bit of charity shop browsing, and sure enough I came away with a couple of classics I’ve not read before: “Lady Audley’s Secret”, which caught my eye as I remembered it was a firm favourite of an old colleague of mine, and “The Bertams” by Anthony Trollope, an author I’ve enjoyed before but not a book I’d heard of.  Having got home with my bargainous purchases I realised that these additions would undoubtedly mean rearranging two of my bookcases, so of course that had to happen without further ado…

The afternoon was pretty much the perfect reading afternoon: rain pouring down relentlessly and no demands on my time other than trotting periodically to the kitchen to replenish my mug of tea.  I finally made a start on “Devotion” – I don’t want to say too much at this point other than it could be shaping up to be my book of the year so far.  Then, because I was just so excited to have literally hours of free reading time, I moved on to “The Paying Guests”, because what could round off a booky day better than a gloriously written, erotically charged period drama?

My booky day, of course, ends with this blog!  I couldn’t not celebrate the joy of a simple day spent reading…hope you enjoy your next book day too.

Spotted! The new books catching my eye right now…

Unbelievably it won’t be long now until the autumn publishing schedule kicks off and the biggest names in books bring out their latest offerings ready for (whisper it) Christmas.  Just before we get there though, I thought I’d share with you a few gems – or rather potential gems – that have caught my eye and will be making their way onto my TBR pile over the coming weeks.

  • “The Marriage of Opposites” by Alice Hoffman

The first book of hers I tried was her latest, “The Museum of Extraordinary Things”.  Having fallen head over heels in love with it I went straight back for more and was astonished to discover just how many novels she’s written over the years.  As a new fan arriving incredibly late to the party, I’m extremely excited to try this next book; I imagine her many well-established fans will feel the same.

  • “Belonging” by Umi Sinha

So this looks like it’s right up my street!  It’s a debut novel and, according to my internet noseyings, is a multigenerational story that flits back and forth between England and India and ranges from the nineteenth century to just after the First World War.  The cultural impact of British Imperialism is a fascinating and occasionally disquieting subject, and it looks as if this book might explore what it meant to be part of a family that spans continents during that period of history.  There’s nothing like discovering a new author via their debut novel so I hope this lives up to expectations.  Also, the cover is gorgeous!

  • “Season of the Rainbirds” by Nadeem Aslam

I’ve been a fan of his ever since I read “Maps for Lost Lovers”, but the one novel I haven’t yet read is this one.  It’s not a new book but rather a reissue of his first novel, originally published in the early 1990s and due for rerelease in September.  I expect many of you out there will have come across it already seeing as it’s been around a long time, but I’m still very excited to catch up on this book that I’ve somehow missed.  If you’ve never tried this author before perhaps now is the time to give him a go!

  • “Devotion” by Ros Barber

I thought “The Marlowe Papers” was one of the cleverest things I’ve read in a long time, not least because of its insanely ambitious construction.  A 400 page novel written entirely in verse?  How many authors would attempt a feat like that?!  And once you’ve got over being mesmerised by the pitch-perfect poetry, you realise it’s also as gripping as any thriller you can name.  So I was super-excited when I heard she had another novel pending; vastly different from the previous one in almost every respect from what I can gather, but I have no doubt it will be equally amazing.