(Reviewed by Guy Savage DEC 25, 2008)
“How extraordinary that life should combine so carelessly the significant and the trivial, the absurd and the sublime.”
By Chance, the second novel from British writer Martin Corrick examines the role of chance in the life of one man. The novel begins with its protagonist, James Watson Bolsover, a man in late middle age, waiting for a ferry. With suitcases in hand, he is traveling to an island in order to begin a new job. Trained as an engineer, Bolsover has spent his life with words--at first this took the form of notes jotted into books and a deep love of reading, but in adulthood, he became a technical writer.
Over the course of the novel, as Bolsover’s past is gradually revealed, the layers of his life are peeled away. At significant moments, the importance of words in Bolsover’s life is detailed, and it becomes clear that words have played a pivotal role in his life--in Bolsover’s youthful marriage to the sexually timid Katherine, for example, words salvaged a potentially disastrous relationship.
As Bolsover travels to the island for his new job, his overwhelming sadness and a hint of regret permeate his memories. Since he travels alone, one can draw the logical conclusions. However, when Bolsover arrives at the island and takes up residence at the Alpha Hotel, a note of strangeness enters the novel. The hotel’s motley assortment of guests seems to be hiding something. The hotel isn’t quite what it appears, and its guests are all in transition--waiting to begin new lives and assuming new identities:
“All the Alpha’s special guests, [Bolsover] supposes, have something in common: we’re migrants, our histories are uncertain, we’re someone else, we’re beginning again. And how is this achieved? By fitting in, joining, belonging.”
By Chance is a well-written novel, and as a narrative, the book, at first, works very well. The author begins the story with a sense of strange detachment that underscores the idea that nothing is quite as it seems:
“Very well, here’s a brisk afternoon in winter, evening coming on, the last of the light falling on a seaside town of white-painted houses with blue doors. A solitary man is lodged on a bench on the quayside, a man in late middle age, a square looking man with two large suitcases, his overcoat tugged closely about him, a man going by the name of James Watson Bolsover.”
Bolsover’s story is told with an objectivity and distance that render him almost as a sort of case study, or an object under the microscope, but in spite of Bolsover’s tendency for introspection, it’s as if he never quite "gets it." Bolsover doesn’t analyze his life or his motivating factors, and as a character, therefore, Bolsover retains as much naiveté as a middle-aged adult as he did as a ten-year-old child. Consequently, by the end of the novel, Bolsover’s great “crisis” of realization, has already dawned on the reader many pages before, so we are left with the sensation of Bolsover "catching up" to what seemed perfectly obvious all along. This makes him something of a dullard.
On another level, By Chance seems to be two novels blended into one. On one hand, there’s the bittersweet narrative of Bolsover and Katherine’s marriage, and their tender husbandry of their beautiful garden. This portion of the novel is well matched with Bolsover’s later relationship with the spontaneous, vibrant, forward thinking, Arabella. However, the novel also assumes surreal qualities when Bolsover becomes involved with a mysterious bureaucratic government agency. While Corrick initially successfully manages to create the sense of time and place of a suffocating life--the reality of a narrow life spent without risk, without chances-- somehow this is undermined by the bizarre and slightly fantastic Kafkaesque introduction of a government agency. Ultimately this is a beautifully written novel that examines guilt and chance that can’t seem to decide quite how much to exploit the fantastical alongside of the everyday details of a bland existence. I much preferred the very real, poignant details of Bolsover’s life without the addition of “the nursery” of new identities. This element, unfortunately, removes the story from the realm of reality and creates an entirely different feel to the novel.
“This is how things happen. One thing causes another. There’s no stopping it. Even when you know you’re on the wrong track, you can’t turn back. There ought to be a way to go back to the last corner and turn the other way.”
- Amazon readers rating: from 1 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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About the Author:
Martin Corrick holds an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia and for much of his working life was a university lecturer at the University of Southampton, but he has also worked as a journalist and copywriter. Corrick now writes full-time and lives in the county of Dorset in England.