The Man with Six Senses by Muriel Jaeger

A question of evolution…

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Michael Bristowe is a young man with a strange talent – he can sense physical objects even when they are out of sight. It’s rather like the way dowsers can sense water underground only much more powerful. But is it a gift or a curse? It sets him apart from the rest of humanity leaving him as a perpetual outsider, and he has found no way to put it to practical use. But then he meets Hilda, a determined, highly educated young woman who becomes fascinated by his power and helps him to develop it so that he becomes ever more accurate but also more sensitive to all the things that remain unsensed by those around him. Our narrator is Ralph Standring, whose desire to marry Hilda draws him reluctantly into Michael’s life. From the beginning the story has a sense of impending doom – Ralph is leaving England for a long journey, and tells us that he’s writing the history of his knowledge of Michael partly because Hilda has asked him to but mainly as a form of catharsis, to help him work through his experiences…

As in her earlier novel, The Question Mark, and in the best tradition of early science fiction, Jaeger uses her story to examine concerns of her contemporary society. First published in 1920, she draws attention to the generation of men who came back from war to find themselves jobless in a society that had no place for them. She shows how people who are different from the norm are treated, especially when their difference is something others don’t fully understand and are therefore apprehensive about. She touches on questions of class and snobbery, and the increasing decline of the old rich, a process which the war had sped up. Mostly, though, her focus is on the place of women in society; specifically, the new breed of university educated women of whom Jaeger was herself one, and of men’s reaction to them.

All of which makes it sound like a weighty tome indeed, which is highly misleading since it’s actually a very entertaining, well written short novel, thought-provoking and dark at points, but with a delightful strain of wicked humour running through it to lift the tone. Ralph, our narrator, is unconsciously self-revealing as a rather pompous, self-important snob of the first degree, who is quite happy for Hilda to be educated, but purely because he thinks it will be pleasant to have a wife who can provide intelligent conversation when he comes home in the evenings. The humour is so subtle it took me a while to realise what she was doing and I may not have caught it at all if I hadn’t read her earlier book and known that the snobbery and prejudices of Ralph were certainly not an indication of Jaeger’s own viewpoints. Though I frequently wanted to slap him, I grew very fond of poor Ralph as a representative of a class and gender that was already feeling its foundations begin to quiver.

Hilda is a bit of an enigma to the reader because she’s a complete enigma to Ralph. Educated he can accept, but rationality is not a feminine trait in his mind. The emotional responses in their relationship are all on his side, and he feels this is all wrong. Hilda’s lack of enthusiasm at the idea of marriage must surely be merely a sign that she hasn’t yet fully matured. He doesn’t share her fascination with Michael’s abilities: she sees Michael as a possible further step on the evolutionary ladder, someone to be nurtured and helped; Ralph, on the other hand, finds him rather repellent, not just because of his strangeness, but because he breaches the social conventions that are so important to conservative Ralph. Plus he does get in the way of Ralph’s wooing!

Muriel Jaeger

In Michael, Jaeger shows us the psychological effects on a sensitive nature of being different in a world that values conformity above all else. In this society, a man is judged primarily by his earning potential unless he’s fortunate enough to be rich – nothing much changes, eh? Michael’s abilities are hard to market, but leave him psychologically incapable of taking up any kind of normal employment. It’s very well done – convincing and not overplayed. Jaeger seems to be questioning if humanity can continue to evolve at all in a world where difference is shunned.

The book includes a short introduction by Mike Ashley, putting it into the context of other books of the time examining similar questions. It also includes an essay at the end, extracted from Dangerous by Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists by Susan J. Leonardi, who analyses the book from a feminist perspective. I often find academic literary analysis destroys the magic for me, and so it began to be in this case, so I only read the first few pages before deciding not to continue. But from the bit I read it looked interesting, perceptive and well written so I’m sure others will find it a real bonus.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and am only sorry that Jaeger wasn’t more prolific in the science fiction field. I believe she wrote another couple, though, and have my fingers crossed that the British Library may add them to their collection in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….That I still “funked” Michael Bristow was certainly no fault of Hilda’s, who has never funked anything in her life.
….For I fear that “funk” is the true description of my attitude. I funked him as one may begin to funk an acquaintance who shows signs of becoming a criminal or a lunatic, or of developing some loathsome disease. I thought about him and his peculiarity and his affairs as little as I possibly could. I do not like oddities. And I could no longer conceal from myself that he was definitely an oddity. I even feared secretly that, as Hilda thought, he might be a momentous sort of oddity, though this I would never admit even to myself. In spite of Hilda, I avoided witnessing any systematic demonstrations of his power; yet I was always coming up against little differences, odd scraps of knowledge and intuition in him, which disturbed me more than I would acknowledge.
….There was the evening when Hilda made him detect a new cigarette-case in my pocket from several yards’ distance. I never liked to see his moving, groping, hesitating fingers, as it were, pick up the scent.

~The Man with Six Senses by Muriel Jaeger

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….Memories – they are all the aged have. The young have hopes and dreams, while the old hold the remains of them in their hands and wonder what has happened to their lives. I looked back hard on my life that night, from the moments of my reckless youth, through the painful and tragic years of the war, to the solitary decades after. Yes, I could say that I had lived my life, if not to the full then at least almost to the brim. What more could one ask? Rare is the person whose life overflows. I have lived, I have travelled the world, and now, like a worn out clock, my life is winding down, the hands slowing, stepping out of the flow of time. If one steps out of time what does one have? Why, the past of course, gradually being worn away by the years as a pebble halted on a riverbed is eroded by the passage of water.

~The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

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….“She’s suffered a great deal in her life. A large part of the suffering has been her own fault, but some of it hasn’t. None of her marriages has been happy except, I’d say, this last one. She’s married to a man now who loves her dearly and who’s loved her for years. She’s sheltering in that love, and she’s happy in it. At least, at the moment she’s happy in it. One can’t say how long all that will last. The trouble with her is that either she thinks that at last she’s got to that spot or place or that moment in her life where everything’s like a fairy tale come true, that nothing can go wrong, that she’ll never be unhappy again; or else she’s down in the dumps, a woman whose life is ruined, who’s never known love and happiness and who never will again.”
….He added dryly, “If she could only stop halfway between the two it’d be wonderful for her, and the world would lose a fine actress.”

~The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side by Agatha Christie narrated by Joan Hickson

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….It is in the nature of revolutions to throw up moments when all the more brilliant dreams of the human race seem about to be realized, and the Catalans with their expansive and self-dramatizing character were not behind other peoples in this respect. Visitors to Barcelona in the autumn of 1936 will never forget the moving and uplifting experience and, as the resistance to the military rebellion stiffened, the impressions they brought back with them spread to wider and wider circles. Spain became the scene of a drama in which it seemed as if the fortunes of the civilized world were being played out in miniature. As in a crystal, those people who had eyes for the future looked, expecting to read there their own fate.

~The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan

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….The up-and-at-’em start time was all for show. For humanity divided into two mutually hostile camps: bounders out of bed and burners of the midnight oil. The distinction went way beyond schedule. The late nighter was synonymous with mischief, imagination, rebellion, transgression, anarchy, and excess, not to mention drugs, alcohol, and sex. The early riser evoked traditional Protestant values like obedience, industry, discipline, and thrift, but also, in this gladness to greet the day, a militant, even fascistic determination to look on the bright side. In short, rise-and-shiners were revolting, and being flapped by so many birds getting the worm felt like getting trapped in an Alfred Hitchcock remake. These bouncy, boisterous, bubbly people loved their seven thirty start, which shouted earnestness and asceticism, and any attempt to move the time to noon for the next year would trigger a riot.

~The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver

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So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 240…

Episode 240

Two in, two out this week, so the TBR total remains the same – 217. My reading slump is improving but the reviewing backlog is still growing! I may not be here again next week till I write a few more…

Here’s what should be reaching the top of the pile soon………………ish.

Fiction

The Moustache by Emmanuel Carrère

Courtesy of Random House Vintage via NetGalley. I loved Carrère’s true crime book, The Adversary, so couldn’t resist this even though I can’t quite imagine how two books could sound more different! I suspect this one may actually be more his usual style than the other was – it sounds intriguingly quirky…

The Blurb says: One morning, a man shaves off his long-worn moustache, hoping to amuse his wife and friends. But when nobody notices, or pretends not to have noticed, what started out as a simple trick turns to terror. As doubt and denial bristle, and every aspect of his life threatens to topple into madness – a disturbing solution comes into view, taking us on a dramatic flight across the world.

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Science Fiction

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

Courtesy of Orion via NetGalley. I’ve taken nearly 500 books from NetGalley over the years, and reviewed the vast bulk of them. However every now and then one gets left behind in the rush, so I have a dozen or so very old ones lingering still unread. This is one of them – it’s been on my list since 2016, I’m ashamed to say. It still sounds as intriguing as it did back then, and it’s had a lot of positive reviews. There seems to be a dispute among reviewers as to whether it should be described as science fiction or literary fiction, which makes it sound even better to me… 

The Blurb says: Augustine, a brilliant, aging astronomer, is consumed by the stars. For years he has lived in remote outposts, studying the sky for evidence of how the universe began. At his latest posting, in a research center in the Arctic, news of a catastrophic event arrives. The scientists are forced to evacuate, but Augustine stubbornly refuses to abandon his work. Shortly after the others have gone, Augustine discovers a mysterious child, Iris, and realizes the airwaves have gone silent. They are alone.

At the same time, Mission Specialist Sullivan is aboard the Aether on its return flight from Jupiter. The astronauts are the first human beings to delve this deep into space, and Sully has made peace with the sacrifices required of her: a daughter left behind, a marriage ended. So far the journey has been a success, but when Mission Control falls inexplicably silent, Sully and her crew mates are forced to wonder if they will ever get home.

As Augustine and Sully each face an uncertain future against forbidding yet beautiful landscapes, their stories gradually intertwine in a profound and unexpected conclusion. In crystalline prose, Good Morning, Midnight poses the most important questions: What endures at the end of the world? How do we make sense of our lives?

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Fiction

Love by Roddy Doyle

Courtesy of Random House Vintage via NetGalley. I’ve never read anything by Roddy Doyle and am not at all sure he’ll be my kind of author. But Cathy at 746 Books has been gradually wearing down my resistance with her great reviews of his books, the blurb sounds intriguing, and frankly I find the cover irresistible…

The Blurb says: One summer’s evening, two men meet up in a Dublin restaurant. Old friends, now married and with grown-up children, their lives have taken seemingly similar paths. But Joe has a secret he has to tell Davy, and Davy, a grief he wants to keep from Joe. Both are not the men they used to be.

Neither Davy nor Joe know what the night has in store, but as two pints turns to three, then five, and the men set out to revisit the haunts of their youth, the ghosts of Dublin entwine around them. Their first buoyant forays into adulthood, the pubs, the parties, broken hearts and bungled affairs, as well as the memories of what eventually drove them apart.

As the two friends try to reconcile their versions of the past over the course of one night, Love offers up a delightfully comic, yet moving portrait of the many forms love can take throughout our lives.

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Vintage Science Fiction

The Man with Six Senses by Muriel Jaeger

Courtesy of the British Library. I loved Jaeger’s The Question Mark, previously also published by the BL, so am looking forward to this one…

The Blurb says: Hilda is besotted with Michael, because Michael has a gift. Through some mutation, his mind is able to perceive ‘lines of energy’ and ‘the vast ocean of movement’ – things beyond the limits of the five senses and perhaps even common understanding. But the gift, as so often in life, comes with a price. There are those who, in their resentment, come to covet the gift, threatening the blissful period of learning and freedom of thought that seemed so possible a future for Hilda and Michael. And then there are the expectations of society, whose demands for the idealised normal spell danger and disarray for the pair.

Muriel Jaeger’s second foray into science fiction sees her experimenting again with an impressive talent for blending genres. The Man with Six Senses is a sensitive depiction of how the different, or supernaturally able, could be treated in 1920s Britain, but also a sharp skewering of societal norms and the expectations of how women should behave – and how they should think. Thought-provoking and challenging, The Man with Six Senses still resonates today in a society whose expectations and structures still continue to trap those who fall outside the limits of acceptance.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?