In the latest novel from one of the UK's greatest writers we return to the Dream Archipelago, a string of islands that no one can map or explain.
Alesandro Sussken is a composer, and we see his life as he grows up in a fascist state constantly at war with another equally faceless opponent. His brother is sent off to fight; his family is destroyed by grief. Occasionally Alesandro catches glimpses of islands in the far distance from the shore, and they feed into his music—music for which he is feted.
But all knowledge of the other islands is forbidden by the junta, until he is unexpectedly sent on a cultural tour. And what he discovers on his journey will change his perceptions of his country, his music and the ways of the islands themselves.
Playing with the lot of the creative mind, the rigours of living under war and the nature of time itself, this is Christopher Priest at his absolute best.
Pro tip, folks: never, ever, ever ask artists where they get their ideas from. It's not a trade secret or anything so sensational—it's just a silly question in the eyes of the aforementioned, and at best, silly questions beget silly answers, such as the bit about the Bognor Regis-based ideas dealer Neil Gaiman used to use. The fact of the matter is that art is inherently personal, and people, whatever their superficial similarities, are completely unique, so what inspires one person in one way isn't likely to inspire another, and if it does, it'll be differently.
That's just one of the lessons the eventually-fêted composer Alesandro Sussken learns in The Gradual: a dreamlike diatribe on the source of song and scene and story and so on, arranged, somewhat like a literary symphony, around one man's lifelong journey through the tides of time.
Like The Islanders and The Adjacent and a bunch of other Christopher Priest books before it, The Gradual takes place in the Dream Archipelago, which is to say "the largest geographical feature in the world, comprising literally millions of islands." The Susskens—a family of musicians, mostly—live on Glaund, which is at war with Faiandland, and has been for as long as anyone can remember, for reasons no one can rightly recall. This sort of thing is not uncommon in the Dream Archipelago, so Alesandro doesn't take it too personally... that is, until his older brother Jacj is enlisted.
Years pass. Indeed, decades do:
Jacj's absence was eternally in the background of everything I did. Whatever had happened to him gave me feelings of dread, misery, horror, helplessness, but you cannot work up these emotions every day, every hour. I feared for him, was terrified of the news that I felt would come inevitably: he was dead, he had gone missing in action, he was horrifically wounded, he had deserted and been shot by officers. All these I pondered.
Yet the time went by...As time tends to. Inevitably, Alesandro has to direct his energies elsewhere, and perhaps it's the fact that Jacj may yet be out there somewhere that leads to our hero's first fascination with the world outwith his.