This is one of my novels of 2013. And this is the review I wrote for the most recent issue or Vector, issue 274 (Winter 2013/14).
It is possible to read this novel as a gathering together of all the things that Christopher Priest has written about before. H.G. Wells (from The Space Machine) features in one section and J.L. Sawyer (from The Separation) is glimpsed in another; there’s a stage magician (as in The Prestige) and a performance that goes fatally wrong (as in The Islanders); we are repeatedly told that a major catastrophic event occurred on 10th May, the date that is central to The Separation; and the novel swerves tellingly from our world to the Dream Archipelago, as The Affirmation did. But if you think you should be ticking off a checklist of Priestly obsessions as you read, think again. Yes, we keep encountering familiar elements, great and small, from earlier novels, but here they are distorted, displaced, put into an unfamiliar context that is somehow adjacent to where we know them from.
Adjacency doesn’t just provide the title and the McGuffin that sets the plot in motion, it is the metaphor that runs throughout the novel. Constantly we are being directed to look slightly to one side of what is going on. Priest plays fair, of course; early in the novel he explains how magicians use adjacency to direct an audience’s attention to something innocuous and away from the business of the trick. But how do we know what is the real event and what the misdirection, until Priest, with consummate timing, pulls the rug from under us, as he does at several points during the novel? I have said before that Priest does not use narrators who are unreliable, but their worlds are unreliable, and I don’t think any novel illustrates the point as powerfully as The Adjacent does.
The thing we are made aware of, time and again, is that all the central characters are misplaced. Tibor Tarent is of mixed Hungarian and American extraction, returning to a Britain that he does not recognise from an assignment on which his wife was killed. The two women he meets on his journey are, likewise, of non-British extraction. Tommy Trent is seen visiting an airfield in France during World War One where he clearly does not fit in. Mike Torrance trained to be an architect but now finds himself working as an engineer servicing bombers during World War Two. Krystyna Roszca is a Polish exile ferrying planes for the ATA during World War Two. And in the Dream Archipelago, Tomak Tallant, Thom the Thaumaturge and Kirstenya Rosscky find themselves on the closed island of Prachous without any real idea of how they got there. As Tarent says at one point, ‘I’m out of synch with the world’ (252). He could be speaking for all of these characters, who stand at an odd angle to their worlds, worlds at war that have become dangerous and disturbed.
Note the names, of course: Tibor Tarent, Tommy Trent, Tomak Tallant, and Krystyna’s lost love, Tomasz, whose doppelganger is Torrance. Priest draws our attention to the significance of the double initials, for instance in giving the storms that now lash Tarent’s future Britain names like Edward Elgar, Federico Fellini and Graham Greene. They are, of course, avatars of each other. Not entirely, not precisely; Priest is too subtle a writer for such straightforward doubling, but we see echoes across the different worlds and times until the worlds start to come together within the psychology of the characters as we now know them.
We see quite early on how these double-Ts have been torn asunder by the brutality of the world they inhabit, though it is perhaps some time before we realise quite how damaged they are. Tibor’s wife has been killed by a frightening new weapon, the Adjacent; now, returning to Britain, he finds himself caught in the Kafkaesque coils of a bureaucracy that has no place or time for him. Travelling across a landscape that has been changed beyond recognition by violent storms and by the adjacency weapon that has obliterated a vast triangle of West London, Tibor finds himself trapped within armoured vehicles known as Mebshers or in isolated establishments where he has no place or purpose. It is only gradually that we recognise how this increasing isolation reflects his own mental disintegration.
Meanwhile his avatar, Tomak, finds himself tracing a similar journey across the desert interior of Prachous with no idea how he got there. Eventually he will reinvent himself as Thom the Thaumaturge, echoing another magician, Tommy Trent, who tried to bring his skills at misdirection to the service of the Royal Flying Corps in World War One France. Thom has one great illusion that is doomed to go terribly wrong, but as he prepares for it he is haunted by three women who all have some mysterious part in his life.
At the same time Krystyna/Kirsteyna searches for her lover, Tomasz, through war torn Poland, at an airfield in wartime Lincolnshire, and across the strange, closed-in, secretive island of Prachous. At one point, flying over a part of the island where local rumour suggests there is a mysterious shanty town known as Adjacent, she sees from one direction a desolate black triangle like the scene of Melanie Tarent’s death or the May 10th atrocity in West London, from another direction the same location is occupied by a growing township, and from a third direction she sees a thriving city of glass and concrete. Those caught by the weapon known as the Adjacent have been displaced to the Dream Archipelago, just as Tomak and Kirsteyna have been; but more than that, adjacency is clearly a point where all times and places coexist. It is only by understanding this that we can understand how all these characters can die within the novel and yet be alive again.
The Adjacent is a novel that feeds on Priest’s other work, but it enriches that work, expands it and deepens it. You don’t need to have read The Affirmation and The Islanders, The Prestige and The Separation (it might help, but it’s not necessary); but if you have read those books, The Adjacent will help you see them in a new light. It is as complex and rewarding as any of his novels, and it repays re-reading, but above all it is a novel that is as enthralling, as mystifying and as satisfying as any other you are likely to encounter this year.