Dr Tilda Moss is a brilliant life scientist, working at the University of Newcastle. She is single, nerdish, and totally wrapped up in her work. When she meets Michael Cameron, a marketing manager for the company that supplies her instruments, she falls greedily in love, even though Michael is asking intrusive questions about her research, paying for their restaurant meals on his expenses account, and probing her virulent atheism.
For all except the prologue, Tilda is in hospital, in a persistent vegetative state, following a unexplained fall at her house. Everyone around her assumes that she is not conscious, but, even though she is unable to move, even an eyelid or a finger, she is fully aware of everything going on around her, her father and brother’s arguments, reports of the investigation into her death by Inspector Lake, visits by her flatmate, Kiki, and the mysterious Allegra, who claims to be a ‘friend’ and wants to try out new age therapies on her. Tilda cannot communicate. She is just an observer, as everyone around her tries to make sense of the last few weeks of her life. She hears that there has been financial fraud at her place of work and that she is supposed to be in involved, but of course she cannot defend herself.
Tilda is frustrated, angry and terrified. One of the strengths of this work is that the author manages to get inside the mind of someone in persistent vegetative state, the indignities, the boredom, the pain and discomfort which she cannot draw anyone’s attention to, insensitive and impersonal medical assessments, and occasional abuse, along the lines of you-shouldn’t-be-taking-up-a-bed-that-could-be-given-to-a-child-with-cancer. Then there’s the deluded, batty cleaner, Claude, who comes in singing Jesus songs and telling her he’s her guardian angel. As time goes on, she realises that he is.
The story unfolds. When it comes, the explanation for Tilda’s accident is perhaps a disappointment, or is it the book’s greatest strength? The storyline takes some unusual turns, which surprised me. Certainly, there were a few hooks which might have led me there, but they were perhaps a little too understated. The Christian theme is always in the background.
Characterisation is good, but, for me, the person who leaps off the page is gauche but well-intentioned Pauline, a minor character.
Some of verbal imagery is excellent, for instance, ‘The late afternoon – plump and golden as a pear – is swollen with pollen.’ This is taken from the first page, and, by itself, works well in conjuring up a splendid summer day, but some of the other prose in the prologue is too flowery for my liking, such as, ‘The shadow from the tree is creeping over me like a bruise, a dark longing, slow, inexorable.’ Thankfully, the literary stuff does not continue throughout the book. Why are we writers always made to feel we have to use literary style (or die)?
A main character who is in a persistent vegetative state is a bit of a shock to the system. I would understand readers who gave up after the first few thousand words, but it’s worth your while to continue, Dear Reader. ‘The Key to All Unknown’ is a compelling read.
I’m writing this post on the iPad, on the train from Delhi to Shimla, which set off an hour and a half late and has since crawled through a lot of fog. The train carriage is not the cleanest, the squat loo unspeakable, but very nice nice young men keep pressing upon me tea in ancient, bright red, plastic cups and hot vegetable croquettes (think Linda McCartney).
This book is published by Instant Apostle. I was asked to review by the author.