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Loss Of Separation
Conrad Williams
Solaris paperback �7.99

review by David Hebblethwaite

Whenever I read Conrad Williams, I always gain a sense of a writer who knows what he is doing, who can be relied upon to do something interesting with his material. That's happened again with his latest novel, an interesting character study that toys with one's expectations of horror and the supernatural.

Loss Of Separation is narrated by Paul Roan, a former commercial pilot who was forced to retire when a near miss in the air (the technical term for which gives the novel its title) shattered his nerves. Paul moved to a Suffolk village to open a B&B with his girlfriend Tamara, but was later knocked down by a car. We join him several weeks after he has emerged from his coma, lucky to be alive; Tamara has gone, and Paul has been taken under the wing of Ruth, the nurse who first found him injured at the roadside. Now he wants to rebuild his life, find Tamara and win her back - but it won't be easy, and not just for the obvious reasons.

The main focus of the novel is very much the character of Paul, and Williams brings him vividly to life. Here is a man intensely aware of his own body (another kind of 'loss of separation', as it were), as well he might be after the extensive rehabilitation he's undergone, and with the constant reminders that he will never again have the same level of physical function as he once did. Paul has a sense of his body as the enemy:

I examined the skeleton and saw what the child sees: a grinning, emaciated monster... The skull was always happy. It knew it would have its day (page 41)

So completely does Williams draw one into Paul's way of thinking that it's as disorienting to us as it is to the protagonist when he travels out of Suffolk and realises how the isolation has affected him. And when, towards the end, Paul steals an ambulance, it takes a moment or two to adjust; to see him from the outside and acknowledge that he is not behaving as rationally as we (and he) had thought. Loss Of Separation gains further effect from the interaction and contrast of four different kinds of horror.

First, there's the big, spectacular, disaster-movie kind, represented here by the dreams Paul has of a plane, awash with death, falling from the sky onto a runway covered with bones; one senses that Paul might view a situation like this as easier to accept than his lot, because it would be so all-consuming and immediate - but it's not to be. What Paul gets in real life is instead a second kind of horror: the creeping, insidious fear of incapacity; the thought that his body will increasingly betray him as the years go by. The scene in which Paul travels in a plane for real, and is terrified because he's aware of all the little things that could go wrong, stands in sharp contrast to the dream sequences.

Several short interludes are told from the viewpoint of Tamara, who is apparently being held prisoner; and the terror of captivity is a third kind of horror in the novel. Like Paul's fear of losing control over his body, this is a much more personal, chilling fear than the grand-spectacle sort; but it's also more immediate. The fourth kind of horror in the novel carries both the scale of disaster-horror with the uncertainty of Paul's fears for his future; it's the villagers' fear of 'the Craw', their name for whatever has caused local children to disappear at various points in history.

Terrors both widescreen and intimate; frightening possibilities and frightening uncertainties - all combine to form the terrain of Loss Of Separation, which Williams navigates in a way that encourages us to reflect on what we anticipate from a horror story, and on what is truly frightening in life.

Loss of Separation by Conrad Williams



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