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). Continue reading “Book Review: The Measure of Darkness”

Vacation Writing: Fiction Reboot Hits the Road

Or, more accurately, the water.

This week, I will be bringing you the Fiction Reboot from the green, forested shores of Dale Hollow Lake in Tennessee.

It is truly beautiful here. Softly lapping water, green blue and gentle, whispers like a lover’s lullaby. It is shocking in its clarity, seeming to be only a few feet deep but really dropping for many meters. This was once a steep-walled canyon, but dams turned the river into a deep, cold lake, stretching along the border between Tennessee and Kentucky. I love it here, not for its own sake alone, but because this is the scene of many past family vacations.

When I was young, my parents would rent a house boat on the this lake. Some of these are quite grand–yachts, really–but not on our family budget. Imagine more of a floating trailer… aluminum, white, squat, with plastic deck chairs and 1970s upholstery in floral. But trust me, it was a palace. A kingdom. As close to sailing the high seas as I could get at 13 (and I always wanted to be a pirate, you know). I would sit on the flat roof as we made our way along, listening to Sting’s Soul Cages and pretending this was a schooner of sorts… A Newcastle ship… A something imaginative and grand and flying dangerous colors. My hair (long, black, and unwieldy as Medusa’s pin curls) would fly about in a fresh evening wind. I was whoever I wanted to be. It was magic.

And, of course, there were fish. The real purpose of this journey was to save fish from drowning. Trout, bass, pike, sunfish, blue-gil, perch. We took boats out in turn with my father, the Great Man of my youth. I respected the Great Man. I fought with him a lot, too. But we were two of a kind, you know. Anti-social, for one thing, and lovers of knowledge for another. Hidden stores of knowledge. About fish. Bears. Racoons. Weather patterns. Vietnam. (And pain, and how to hide it well.) I belonged to my father in ways I would never belong to anyone else. After all, he adopted me (and I was no picnic, let me tell you). There is nothing quite like being loved by a father who chooses you for you.

And, of course, there was family. The real purpose of this journey was to save a family from the world. A unit against the machine, we left civilization behind and played cards. My mother was fantastic at cards. She was my partner. My brother was crap at cards. He was my dad’s partner. Mom and I had a system. We were the invincible females, two Amazon women ruling as queens of a small boat. Mom was great at games and stories, making up the strangest and most lovely tales (about the man who painted the sky, for instance). Mom and me–We won. A lot. Mostly because my younger brother always called suit. Even if he didn’t have any of the corresponding cards. Compulsion, I think, but funny. The boat rang with laughter always.

And, of course, there were dragons to slay. The real purpose of this journey was for my brother and I to invent as many weird water games as possible. Most involved imaginary creatures. Dinosaurs, water monsters, aliens, talking rabbits (which were also aliens–my brother had the coolest dreams). Its shocking we did not grow gills, as we never left the water (except to play cards and save fish from drowning). We were always at each other, but we were also our own best fiends. We still are.

And here I am again. Different times. There are a lot more of us, for once thing. My brother and his wife have two small boys, Nicholas and Matthew. This is there first trip to the lake. My parents are here, too, as is my spouse (the esteemed Mr. Mark who gets frequent mention on this blog, though we live 5 hours apart. He deserves crowns of glory–for I am still no picnic, and there is nothing like being loved by a man who chooses you for you).  It is the same, but wholly different. But it is still most awesome–and I can almost see my younger self, tendrils flying, clinging to the rigging and ready to man the quarter-deck.

Such places bring us back home to ourselves. And like any venue that offers a sweeping vista of the past as well as the future, this is an excellent place to write from.


This week we will have Tessa Harris, author of The Anatomist’s Apprentice for our Thursday author feature. Tune in!

The Aroma of Memory–and the foods of family history

It is interesting to me, the phenomena of memory. I particularly like the way Victorian’s perceived memory; Athena Vrettos talks about several theories of “displaced memory” (memory that has come loose from someone of something). It was about “how recollections could become disconnected from individual personalities; how memories could wander both temporally and physically; how reminiscences could be transferred to other minds; and how residues of human emotions and experiences might adhere to the material world” (Vrettos 200). I particularly like the idea of “transcendental consciousness,” where material objects were thought capable of transmitting memories. Much of this has been debunked, of course, but there is one way in which I feel such transcendental ideas still have cultural valence: smell memory.

It is a psychological concept, our way of mapping events to aroma. Apparently only two synapses separate the “olfactory nerve from the amygdala, which is involved in experiencing emotion and also in emotional memory” (Herz & Engen, 1996). That’s a scientific explanation–but lets face it, we have all had the real, tangible experience, haven’t we? Where the scent of new mown grass reminds us of childhood and grass-stained jeans in summer on the farm…where the smell of soap takes us back to the potpourri our aunt kept in a dish near the telephone stand. But for me (and for those of you who read this blog regularly, this will not be a surprise), it really comes down to food. Yesterday, I heated the iron skillet and tossed new potatoes with a seasoning salt from the local market–and I was transported back to age eight.

My grandmother lived on a farm. Well, she lived on a number of different farms, and in villages, and in towns. She was something of a gypsy that way. But when I think of her, I tend to think of the farm kitchen… and of Lawry’s® Seasoning Salt.

Regardless of the meal, there was sure to be some form of pork (either in the chops or the bacon fat) and a plentiful dose of the Salt, magic reddish-brown fairy dust of flavor. I can see her, too. She was a voluptuous woman–a knock-out when she was young who settled into a comfortably plump and cheery old age. Her hair was salt-and-pepper; when short it curled round her face. She wore glasses, had laugh lines–and her laugh: loud, wonderful, a trumpeting of happy cackles. She’d had a hard life, but life was never hard upon her. And while I would never call her a culinary genius (she really stuck to the basics, in retrospect), I fondly recall every meal.

My grandfather was a man of pretty basic likes and dislikes. And he liked pork chops and green fried tomatoes. (I know most people say fried green tomatoes, but that isn’t how we do it in my family…so there). I was a little snipe, a curly headed urchin, and my grandpa (whom I called papa-daddy) and I would fight over the mounds of crispy tomatoes–and over the “crunchies.” These were magical. The gold nuggets of the food pyramid. After dredging the chops in flour, my grandmother put them in hot bacon fat. Leftover flour would absorb both the cooking meat flavor and the bacon, crisping up to a tiny flavor-packed granule that (in my young mind) were fit for gods. My grandpa would always lose, of course, I always got the most of these blessed nuggets. Funny, isn’t it. All this from the smell of salt.

And so, in a flash, I am back in my kitchen (a small kiosk by comparison). I smile, but there is a world of difference between now and then. I’ve lost my grandparents; papa-daddy first, then grandma–twelve years ago, today. I miss them. I miss those meals, too–in my pork free, gluten free world, there are no chops and no crunchies.

But I still have Lawry’s®. And I have my memories. The aroma of the past.