by Emily Mackie
`I don’t want to know your name. Not your real name. You can be anyone with me. Anyone at all. Just make it up. Names can be so binding, so limiting.’
So. Who are we, really? Do we know? Are we all just a confection of untrustworthy memory, smoke, mirrors and lies? Does anyone really know anyone? Is anyone, anyone? Is there such a thing as an individual, a personality? Or do we all just make it up as we go along?
So who is Jacob Little? Is he a tragic, lost young man in search of life’s purpose, who regularly adopts new identities, new obsessions – 17 of them, as the story opens – or is that someone else entirely? Does anyone know who Jacob Little really is or was, ever? Even his own diaries, carried from one life to the next in piles of green notebooks, don’t really tell us. ‘If it weren’t for the existence of others’, I wouldn’t exist at all’, Jacob writes – which is of course true for us all, in the physical sense, the existential, the spiritual, even the quantum. But it has particular relevance to Jacob Little, the man who never was.
There’s a firm twist of quantum seasoning here, with a self-made – in the truest, purest sense – protagonist, who fervently believes in his ‘Theory of Obsession’ and his ‘Theory of Others’: that none of us has any identity outside that ‘gifted to us’ by those who observe us; that consciousness is just an illusion, a mutation, ‘the parasite self feeding off the rest of him’ but not real. A clever trick of the mind’. And the ‘self’, the so-called personality, a mere construct of invented peculiarities that mark us out from the herd.
We know all this because the narrator tells us. But who is the narrator, the omniscient voice, the ghost? Is it Jacob – the real Jacob? Or maybe his mother? Maybe nobody at all. We are never told; there are no absolutes in this tale of twisted identity and time.
This is, to say the least, an unusual novel. I was irritated at the start, impatient with the bizarre narration, the experimental style. But the annoying narrative voice evaporates in subsequent chapters, and the style settles to focus on Jacob and the people around him; those who think they know him now; those who think they knew him in the past. Jacob exists in the memories of those who thought they knew him, but each individual’s memory of Jacob is so distinct in every detail, they might be remembering entirely different men. Jacob says he imagined jumping from the Clifton suspension bridge; Solace says he actually did, but Jacob says he didn’t tell her what happened, so how does she know what she thinks she knows? Mr Benson thinks that travelling back in time on a quantum level could be possible. Not in our ‘big, clumsy bodies, but elements of our consciousness could, thoughts like sound and light, creating waves in spacetime.’ But is any of it true?
These characters – those who knew Jacob; whose observations, encounters, memories, make up what we know of the man who calls himself Jacob – are a fascinating and engaging cast. There’s Lizzie/Max, a 9 year old girl who wants to be a boy, a child of firm faith who obsessively reads her Bible. There’s Fat Sal, landlady of the pub where Jacob makes his final home. There’s Mr Benson, landlord and watchmaker, who believed he could make ‘a clock that proved time doesn’t exist at all. A quantum clock that held everything past, present and future in one dimensionless point’; who knew Jacob and his mother and befriended Jacob as a boy; his surrogate son. There’s Lucy – later Dr Lucy – daughter of two lesbian mothers, who uses her obsession with Jacob to build a new life, a successful career. ‘Without Jacob, would she exist? Certainly not as she is now. So who would she have become? What would her life look like?’ There’s Solace herself (not her real name, of course), who tells Lucy not to ‘believe a word I tell you with regard to Jacob Little. Because together we make a fiction. Solace is his creation. And Jacob is mine’. Or does she; does she say that? Or does Lucy simply want her to, and is there any difference?
This is a tale of dramatic twists, all gently done; there are no explosions, no screaming, no shouting; everything simply happens. It’s a deeply complex, twisted tangle of a book. A narrative of short chapters, divided into sections called beginning, middle and end. The end, the key event, takes place on a Good Friday; in a book redolent with Biblical references, this can hardly be insignificant.
I’m aware this is an odd and confusing review; well, it’s an odd and confusing book, and hellishly hard to write about. I can tell you, that if you can get past some irritating early chapters; if you have the patience to let the story unfold without pre-empting or imagining you know what is happening, happened or about to happen; if you don’t mind an unreliable narrator, narrative and complete uncertainty at all times and in all spaces, then you are in for an extraordinary ride, because this novel – which starts out so mundanely – ends up going nowhere you expect and builds into something truly extraordinary. Intricate and finely wrought, it will surely reward repeat readings.
To paraphrase Jacob’s teacher, Mr Forbes: Imagine yourself, alone in space, no sound, no light. Would you still be able to think? Would you still hear the voice in your head? Who is that voice? What is consciousness? Is it the same thing as the soul?
Well, is it?
What do you think?