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Ken Grimwood


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Elizabeth Austin is a young woman who suffers from epilepsy. When a neurosurgeon offers her a new form of treatment that involves placing an electrode in her brain and stimulating it via a wireless apparatus she agrees. But the surgeon also wants her to take part in an experiment: during the operation she will have other electrodes implanted in so-called silent brain areas, which the surgeon would like to investigate for their possible functions. She agrees to this too.

The operation is a success and the fits are controlled. The surgeon then begins his research using the other electrodes. One of these produces a strange effect: Elizabeth finds herself inside the body of an Englishwoman, who she later discovers is called Jenny Curran, living in London in the nineteenth century. Elizabeth becomes more and more intrigued by these experiences, and she persuades the surgeon to allow her to take the stimulator home after the formal experiments are over. Her husband disapproves of this interest, about which she tells him only a little, but she continues to explore this other realm of existence secretly. This leads her to fall in love with Jenny's husband. At first she is very happy, carrying on an affair as it were vicariously, but then she discovers a shocking secret about Jenny and the situation spirals out of control to reach a horrific conclusion.

This was Grimwood's first published novel and it is most impressive. He went on to write the even more satisfying Replay, which also deals with alternative realities. Reading it has confirmed my view that Grimwood was an important writer who managed the difficult feat of incorporating deep philosophical ideas about the nature of time and identity into fiction.

This book reminded me of Marghanita Laski's novella The Victorian Chaise Longue, in which a young girl gets trapped in the past, and also Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Grimwood makes Elizabeth's experiences thoroughly believable, though I did spot one anachronism: she goes riding and describes feeling the horse between her legs, but at that time she would certainly have been riding side-saddle. And I don't think an upper-class Victorian gentleman like Jenny's husband would consider marrying a girl whose background was unknown on the vague assurance that she had been cast aside by her rich parents.

14 February 2010

%T Breakthrough
%A Grimwood, Ken
%I W.H.Allen
%C London
%D 1976, 1977
%G ISBN 0-941-01698-0
%P 234pp
%K fiction
%O first British edition

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