‘What makes me, me? What makes you, you?’ Cat Stevens
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Publication due: 30th April 2013
When Nicholas Slopen turns up at the shop of an old friend, she is stunned. He looks completely different, his voice is different but, most surprisingly of all, she’d heard he’d died the year before. And yet once they start talking, she is soon convinced that it is indeed he.
This intelligent and very well written book poses the question – what makes us, us? Can we be defined, summed up, by the words we speak? What if we are sundered irrevocably from all our relationships – personal, professional, social: are we still us?
Our narrator, known as Q by his psychiatrist but calling himself Dr Nicholas Slopen, relates his story from the secure facility of the Royal Bethlehem Hospital (a descendant of Bedlam) to where he has been sectioned. Since Dr Slopen died the year before, and the authorities have his body and autopsy photographs to prove it, and since Q looks nothing like him, he is considered to be suffering from a delusion. But he has all Dr Slopen’s memories and an explanation of how he has become who – or what – he is. An explanation so fantastical that he understands why no-one will believe him…
Dr Slopen’s story begins when he is asked to use his expertise to authenticate some letters apparently written by Samuel Johnson. He is entirely convinced by the wording and content that these letters can only be genuine, but they are written on paper that wouldn’t have been available to Johnson. From this beginning, the author takes us on an investigation into identity, individuality and authenticity that is entertaining and unsettling in equal measure. Theroux weaves notions of psychiatry, philosophy, science and politics into a story where the human motivations become scarily believable even while the central point remains deliberately incredible. A story of mad science turned to evil purpose, the age-old search for immortality, man’s inhumanity to man, but at its heart this is a search for a definition of humanity.
Amidst all the fascinating theorising and philosophising, Theroux doesn’t forget to give us some well-rounded characterisation and a great story. At first, Slopen is an unattractive character, smug and superior, an academic disappointed at the world’s failure to reward him as he feels he merits. But as his nightmarish journey progresses, we see him develop compassion, a conscience, perhaps, and even courage. Jack, the mysterious savant, demands our sympathy and Vera, who cares for him, remains always enigmatic and somewhat unfathomable. An exceptional book in what is turning out to be a vintage year for exceptional books, this is both enjoyable and thought-provoking and will leave this reader at least mulling over some of the many questions it raises. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.