Book Review: The Measure of Darkness

BookReviewLogoReview by Janet Philp

Liam Durcan, a consultant neurologist at McGill University, returns to the literary world following the success of his first novel, Garcia’s Heart — for which he won the Arthur ELLIS Best First Novel award in 2008 — with The Measure of Darkness (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016). This second book is the story of Martin, a distinguished architect who emerges from a coma to discover that his life has changed.  He is suffering from neglect syndrome, a brain injury that leaves him unaware of any deficit.  People suffering from neglect syndrome are unaware of half of the stimuli in their environment.  In an extreme case a person with neglect who is asked to draw a clockface will only draw the number from 12 to 6 whilst believing that they have drawn a whole clock and they may only eat the food from one side of their plate.  In Martin’s case they test for his neglect with the often used line bisection test where the patient is asked to draw a line that bisects the one that the doctor has drawn on a piece of paper.  The bisecting line is usually drawn to one side, only bisecting the section of the line that the patient can “see.”  This is a career ending injury for an architect.

25330021 As we travel with Martin through his recovery and acceptance of his condition we are introduced to his estranged brother and his daughters.  We are introduced to a world where many of the characters demonstrate “neglect” in certain aspects of their lives even without having suffered the injuries that Martin has gone through.  Martin’s obsession with the Soviet architect Konstantin Melnikov allows him to draw parallels with his own career, having being removed from the commission of a lifetime and being declared unfit to practice following the car accident that placed Martin in the coma. It is Martin’s therapeutic writing of Melnikov’s story that allows him to reflect on his visit to the USSR when he was a student and finally reveals to Martin what happened the night of his accident. He fears that having lost his career he may end up like Melnikov: “But what these men really want to know, like all the others who came before, is how you managed to survive without building anything for forty years. Do you see the incomprehension in the eyes of the student?” (198).

As readers move through the book with Martin they are invited to slowly piece together the harrowing truth of what actually happened on the night of the accident.

I read most of The Measure of Darkness on a long train journey without realising how much of the book I had read; the story moves along at a steady pace.  Durcan cleverly uses the neurological condition that he clearly knows a lot about to demonstrate that everybody tends to neglect certain aspects of their lives, and yet they are unaware of their actions and unaware of the effect that this neglect has on other people.  The character Martin can be quite rude to the people who support him and it’s not clear if this is as a result of the brain injury or whether that was always his personality.  It is a strange feeling to have the main character of the book as someone it is hard to sympathise with, yet you are reminded that they may not be aware of how they are treating people and so your feelings towards them are constantly challenged. Almost all of the characters that appear in the book are neglecting some aspect of their life and this has unforeseen ramifications on others — i.e. Martin neglects the effect that his evading the draft for Vietnam had on his family.  Martin’s brother neglects the effect that his experience of the war had on his family.  The children in both families are unaware of the effect their behavior has on their parents.

Whilst the neurological condition of neglect is something that has robbed Martin of his talents as an architect it can clearly be used as a metaphor for other aspects of his life, such as his estranged brother and the broken family relationship with his divorced wife and daughters.  The Measure of Darkness was a good read and I would recommend it to anyone as a useful vehicle to examine how you treat people in your life and whether there are areas that you are neglecting.

img_0179Janet Philp trained as a molecular biologist and is currently retraining as an anatomist. She is based in Edinburgh where she is involved with public engagement with science.

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