Tibor Tarent, a freelance photographer, is recalled to Britain from Anatolia where his wife Melanie has been killed by insurgent militia. IRGB is a nation living in the aftermath of a bizarre and terrifying terrorist atrocity – hundreds of thousands were wiped out when a vast triangle of west London was instantly annihilated. The authorities think the terrorist attack and the death of Tarent’s wife are somehow connected.
A century earlier, a stage magician is sent to the Western Front on a secret mission to render British reconnaissance aircraft invisible to the enemy. On his journey to the trenches he meets the visionary who believes that this will be the war to end all wars.
In 1943, a woman pilot from Poland tells a young RAF technician of her escape from the Nazis, and her desperate need to return home.
In the present day, a theoretical physicist stands in his English garden and creates the first adjacency.
The Adjacent is my first taste of Priest’s work. I know, I know how could I call myself a serious genre reader and yet never cracked the pages of a Priest novel? I’ve always been aware of him as an author – when I was in my teens I knew that Priest had written two Doctor Who scripts for the 4th Doctor that were never made, and, of course, I’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige – but I’ve never felt compelled to read his work. His novels, nearly a complete collection, sit on my shelves in the garage collecting dust. (Priest is not alone. My garage has become a Sargasso Sea of novels and novelists whose books I own but whose work I’ve never read).
When The Adjacent was announced I decided to rectify that state affairs… and then nearly didn’t when I read the closing paragraph to Niall Alexander’s positive review of the book on Strange Horizons:
Reading The Adjacent is like taking a grand tour of the larger canon Christopher Priest has established over the course of his forty-year career, so no, newcomers need not apply, but old hands are apt to find it massively satisfying.
Newcomers need not apply…
Now that I’ve finished the novel I can appreciate where Niall is coming from. Even with my limited knowledge of Priest’s oeuvre, there’s a feeling that this book is a continuation of a bar conversation that Priest has begun elsewhere. Not in specific plot details, but in the recycling of elements that Priest has always been fascinated with – magicians, aeroplanes, H.G Wells, and archipelagos that exist somewhere to the left of our reality.
I’m sure if you’re aware of all the bits and pieces that reflect and echo previous novels you’ll have more fun with The Adjacent. That’s certainly the impression I get from Niall’s review. But in spite of Niall’s suggestion you shouldn’t be intimidated from picking up the book. That’s not to say The Adjacent isn’t challenging, it forgoes a linear structure and easy answers, but the complexity of the novel are specific to the themes of the book and don’t require previous knowledge.
And what’s it about? Actually that’s a pretty easy question to answer. The Adjacent is a love story. The genius of the novel is you don’t realise you’re reading a love story until the very end. It’s a canny piece of misdirection that Priest foreshadows earlier in the novel. In a scene set during WW1, magician Tommy Trent explains:
The principles of magic are much simpler than most people think – concealment, production, and so on. They apply to every illusion ever performed. What often looks like a new trick to the audience is a variation of one of these principles; a new way of performing a familiar card trick, a surprise production of a dove or a rabbit, a modified cabinet inside which my compliant niece would seem to be transformed.
The Adjacent is one extended illusion, Priest keeping us off balance as both the setting, and reality itself, shifts and changes. We move from the near future where an Islamic Republic hold powers over the UK, to WW1 where Tommy Trent meets HG Wells to WW2 where Mike Torrance works on Lancasters at an airbase in Tealby Moor and falls in love and then an extended section on Prachous – an Island in the Dream Archipelago – were a pilot searches for lost love.
Love is evident, but it’s fragmentary, a faded memory or a sense of loss. It’s only when Tibor Tarent decides to bring his life into focus – both metaphorically and literally, he’s a photographer – that we understand where Priest has been leading us along. The moment he reunites with his wife, a woman he thought was dead and yet who we only realise at that moment has been searching for him as much as he’s been missing her, is emotional and heartfelt:
Tibor was holding his wife in his arms. It was so strange to do, yet so right, so unquestionably right. She was folding herself against him as she used to, a she always had, right at the start when they were young, and even later on, whenever they found the time to be alone together, and still loving.
The Adjacent then, is not a book about Islamic Republics that may or may not take over the Western World in the near future. Neither is it a novel about a quantum based weapon called the Perturbative Adjacent Field that was built to end all wars. These are window dressing, “an unexpected pleasantry, to make them look at the wrong object on a table, or to watch an unimportant movement of a hand, or to look in the wrong direction.” Rather The Adjacent is a strange and wonderful story that will leave you with a smile and the realisation that a master illusionist has been holding your hand all along.