Christopher Priest returns to the Dream Archipelago with his latest novel, the moving, imaginative and ultimately rather inspiring The Gradual. It follows the life of Alesandro Sussken, a native of the fascist state of the Glaund Republic, which has been at war for as long as anyone can remember. As a young man, the islands he can see from his window but is forbidden from visiting obsess him, and inspire him to turn his feelings into music.
With his fame spreading beyond his home state, Sandro agrees to take part in a musical tour of the islands of the Dream Archipelago. However, his journey to these incredible new places will have an lasting effect on his life, and will jolt him out of his (relatively) comfortable existence.
The grim, cold and oppressive atmosphere of the Glaund Republic gives Priest a compelling place to start as we meet this artistic young man and his older brother Jacq, who is conscripted by the state to go off and fight in a never-ending war. Although The Gradual does not wallow in misery, the novel does a beautiful job of depicting the state of detached sorrow that these people have been living in for years. Jacq’s uncertain fate continues to haunt Sandro decades later, as the question of his return becomes increasingly unlikely.
Life during wartime, and the effects that living through conflict have on a person’s psyche, is one of several themes that Priest is interested in investigating. Glaund’s citizens get on with their lives, and Sandro is no different; his life is his music. Priest offers a compelling look at the artistic process; how inspiration can come and go, how crucial it is for a musician to be able to escape into their work, and the conflicting feelings that arise from being plagiarised. Describing Sandro as a “tortured genius” would be overdoing it, but the sheer importance of his work to him is really quite affecting.
Then there’s the final – and arguably most important – element: time. During the course of his travels, Sandro and his fellow musicians discover that they have somehow lost months, and that their lives have been irrevocably changed while they have been away. Sandro’s efforts to understand this effect, later referred to as the Gradual, give the book a definite foothold in the ‘sci-fi’ section, but they also give it some of its most powerful moments. The relativity of time is beautifully portrayed here, from grief’s power to keep Sandro’s parents trapped in their sorrow over Jacq’s unknown fate to the strange temporal uncertainty that comes with long-distance travel.
Then there are the beguiling adepts, the enigmatic men and women who can make sure that the correct time is restored to you – at a price. The closer Sandro gets to his destination, the closer he gets to achieving inner peace, building towards an affecting finale.
Some readers may struggle with the leisurely pacing of The Gradual, but Priest’s writing is so engaging and persuasive that you’re quickly swept into this world of uncertain hours and buried voices, and it’s a journey that we can recommend taking.