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Dark Eden
Chris Beckett
Corvus hardcover £18.99

review by Gary Couzens

Chris Beckett's third novel is his first to see initial publication in his home country of the UK. (His second novel, Marcher, remains without a British publisher.) We are on the planet of Eden, a sunless world of 532 people, the descendants of Angela and Tommy who landed here 163 years before. Life is a long struggle for survival and six generations of inbreeding has left its mark on the people, the Family. The elders tell stories, now rapidly becoming legends, of their ancestors who built ships that travelled between worlds. And one day, they say, they will return...

Such a ritual- and tradition-dominated society invites a rebel, or else there would be no novel, and that's John Redlantern. His actions tear the Family apart but lead to a conceptual breakthrough. Beckett tells his story in first person (past tense). You can see why he has done this, to convey the devolved English that the Family members speak - not to Riddley Walker-like extremes, but with the shards of recognisable English words embedded in the text. Here's an example:

It sounds dumb but all I could think of for a moment was that is was a Landing Veekle [...] Something must have gone wrong, we knew, or the Earth people would have come long ago, but they had a thing with them called a RayedYo that could shout across sky, and another thing called a Computer that could remember things for itself. (page 9)

With terms such as 'newhairs' for youngsters and 'oldmums' for, well, old mothers, there's a slightly childlike quality to much of this, for all the adult activities (including sexual ones) going on, appropriate for a society that's some way along in weakening its gene pool. That narration is by John Redlantern. However, the needs of Beckett's story precludes telling the whole 400 pages from one viewpoint, so we have a multiple first person novel, with the name of each chapter being the name of its narrator. For much of the novel narration duties are shared by John Redlantern and his mate and cohort Tina Spiketree, but there are six other first-person voices, some of which are used for just a chapter or two.

And that's a problem with this novel: it's hard enough distinguishing between two or three first-person narrators, let alone eight, and it's something Beckett hasn't pulled off. Eight voices blur into one, and I often had to go back to the start of each chapter to remind myself whose head I was in at any given moment. I couldn't help thinking that a third person using free indirect speech might have been a better choice.

That said, Dark Eden is an involving novel for the most part, with some strong set-pieces - a leopard hunt early on, a perilous trek across the Snowy Dark in the later stages. But like too many novels, especially ones for adults, it's simply too long and, at (my estimate) around 120,000 words, so it wears out its welcome before the end.

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

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