There comes a time when everyone must undertake an accounting of all they’ve accomplished, for good or ill, in their personal and professional lives. Usually this happens around middle age, when we can no longer avoid the fact that our end is closer than our beginning. For architect Martin Fallon this process of looking back and trying to make sense of it all has a specific trigger: after his car is struck by a snowplow on a Quebec highway, he suffers a brain injury that leaves him with a condition known as “neglect.” This condition limits his ability to perceive the left side of his world, while at the same time rendering him unaware of being so compromised.
From this premise, author and neurologist Liam Durcan spins an intriguing and layered medical mystery. Martin embarks on a quest to put his life back together by revisiting old haunts and reconnecting with estranged family members. The goal is to reconstruct a life story out of fragments, to fashion something “linear” – with integrity and coherence – out of what are now fragments (it’s no coincidence that one of Martin’s daughters takes the exploration of urban ruins as a subject for a documentary she is filming). Along the way he might even come to understand what he was doing on the road the night of his accident.
Part of Martin’s story involves his fascination with the Soviet-era architect Konstantin Melnikov. Martin recalls a visit to Melnikov’s home years earlier, and at the time of his accident, he had been working on a biographical sketch of the Russian. It is, however, never entirely clear what connection Durcan wants to make between the two men, and one has the sense here of an angle to the novel that is never fully explored.
What is explored is the ambivalent nature of Martin’s affliction. Martin is both partially unaware of, and in denial about, the consequences of his accident, but these may be coping strategies he is not entirely conscious of. There’s an early episode in which Martin’s brother keeps the fatal condition of someone’s pet hidden, thinking that by doing so, he is being compassionate. Too much awareness
is not always a good thing.
Martin’s accident is also a metaphor for the loss of the artist’s visionary gleam of
imagination and creativity. It is an excuse for his awareness that, having achieved the top rank of his profession, “There would never be a golden season and he would never be great … that if there had been a vision, he had abandoned it, or forgotten it, among all the trappings of security.” These are dark thoughts, leading to desperate acts of erasure.
In short, Durcan’s novel suggests, it is perhaps better not to take the full measure of darkness. Humankind can’t bear very much reality.