THE ECHO CHAMBER by Luke Williams
“Silent were the skies. Silent the soldiers, inched under the soil. Silent too the burned bodies, heaped in cindersâ€¦Silent the guns. Silent the wasted cavalcade of men, women and children, as they journeyed, blind, toward their homes. Silent too the fires that had burned down the cities. Silent the gas chambersâ€¦Silent the seed thrust toward the egg.”
Review by Betsey Van Horn Â AUG 16, 2011)
Evie Steppmanâ€™s mammoth ears are a repository of history, memory, and time. She was born unnamed to British parents in Lagos, Nigeria, during the end of British colonial rule (1946), and, now in her fifties, she is chronicling her story and the stories of various individuals from a collection of documents, letters, diaries, pamphlets, photographs, and assorted, emotionally powerful objects, or â€śunicaâ€ť (one-of-a-kind objects).
Evie suffers from severe tinnitus (which resembles MĂ©niĂ¨re’s disease), and, isolated in an attic in Eastern Scotland, is anxious to record these memories before she is engulfed by the din in her head. Her gifted and telepathic sense of hearing is analogous to Saleemâ€™s prophetic olfactory organ in Rushdieâ€™s Midnight’s Children.
â€śMy ears were extraordinary. Crimson, membranous, graced with heavy lobes, they whorled their way into the hollow where ciliary movement stirred, absorbing the soundsâ€¦All my talent had gone into the development of my ears.â€ť
Like Rushdie, Williams uses polyphonic diversity of voice and magical realism to tell a story of ordinary people living during extraordinary times. But whereas Saleem is born precisely at the stroke of midnight during the birth of a nation, Evieâ€™s birth is a tragic affair. Clinging to her motherâ€™s womb, she coveted her life inside the amniotic chamber, where her acute sense of hearing began. Evie delayed her own birth by two months, subsequently ending her motherâ€™s life.
â€śâ€¦the vicious spitting of feral cats, rugbeaters thwacking, fat goats being led to marketâ€¦women pounding manioc. I heard the punishing of boy thievesâ€¦My hearing was demotic and unprincipled.â€ť
The sounds that came to Evie through the echo chamber of the womb resembled a phonographâ€™s–separating sound from its object, storing them until they were ready to be replayed. Her fatherâ€™s voice, as he read Dickens, Darwin, Oscar Wildeâ€™s fairy tales, Treasure Island, and the Lordâ€™s Prayer, was muted and flat through amniotic fluid, but permanently recorded.
The tick-tock of fatherâ€™s pocket watch was steady and continuous, as was the sound of the sea outside. Evie learned opposites and contrastsâ€”that East and West repelled each other, that Cat and Sparrow were â€ścoupled in mutual hate.â€ť
Evieâ€™s audition is also temporally transcendentâ€”she hears through time and space, as if her hearing materialized from the primordial steam that saturated her with timeless tutoring of the past and present. As well as binding her to history, her ears have yoked her to ancient myths and fables.
The story is a non-linear journey, but is cohesively braided through the channels of Evieâ€™s aural migrations — through empire, war, genocide, independence, and a glam rock tour through the US, David Bowie-style. We are also introduced to Evieâ€™s remarkable mother; her grandfather, an elderly, delusional man whose fantasies of Frankensteinian prowess would make Mary Shelley raise an eyebrow; and to Evieâ€™s ardent, emotionally charged, and life-altering love affair with an enigmatic actress, Damaris.
A key event underground with the nightsoil workers is a literary triumph of compassion and imagination, a vivid, hallucinatory examination of humanity through those forgotten and marginalized souls.
Williams seamlessly controls the disclosure of multiple events, with the penultimate, harrowing scene singularly expressed through a letter from Evie’s childhood friend, Ade. Ade was a native of Lagos, the scrappy son of Iffe, (a theatrical onion seller who Evie adored), and her constant companion in the Jankara marketplace and city streets, until a wretched misunderstanding divided them. It was also during her sixth year of life, while with Ade, that the genesis of Evieâ€™s name is born.
Lagos is an allegory to Evieâ€™s birth, a place that had grown out of the water. This duality of land and water euphemized Evieâ€™s ability to inhabit more than one â€śworld,â€ť through her towering perspicacity of audition.
The Echo Chamber is both a subtle and outrageous novel that echoes other novels– a pastiche and synthesis of luminaries, such as Isaac Babel, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bruno Schulz, Georges Perec, and others who are interwoven to buttress the story. For example, Evieâ€™s attic life reflects The Street of Crocodiles protagonist, Theodore, listening to the vibrant gusts of air through the rafters, the bellows and inhalation of the wind. There are a staggering number of motifs, metaphors, and allegories, which begs a second reading, just as complex music demands repeated immersion.
The novelâ€™s strength of character is matched by its astonishing assortment of objects that tell their own stories, such as an alleged ancient map, the mappa mundi, and its mythical â€śmonstrous races,â€ť one of the most piquant images of the story. The picture on the map of a pelican is so evocative and shattering in its nuance that it will likely be embedded in the readerâ€™s mind eternally.
This review would not be complete without mentioning that the diary of Evieâ€™s lover, Damaris, is penned by Luke Williamsâ€™ friend, Natasha Soobramanien. These two chapters are electrifying and immediately felt, removing a bit of the 19th-century fustiness that sometimes injects the narrative and gracing it with impetuous vigor. Moreover, the gap that the reader feels at times with Evie is closed, the distance removed.
Enter this splendid realm of objects and stories, this auricular theater of sound, the emptiness of silence, the chamber of echoes.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 2 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Viking Adult (August 4, 2011)|
|REVIEWER:||Betsey Van Horn|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Bookgasm interview withÂ Luke Williams|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:
- The Echo Chamber (August 2011)