Christopher Priest, now 73, has been quietly turning out oddly mesmerising fiction for nearly half a century but, like the protagonists of his 2005 novel The Glamour, somehow has the knack of never quite being noticed.
It is true that he has devoted admirers; he has won awards; he was on Granta’s original list of best young novelists — scraping in on age, not quality — and Christopher Nolan filmed, cleverly, his even cleverer novel The Prestige (1995), which was about Victorian illusionists and duplicity.
But though that book won both the ‘literary’ James Tait Black and the ‘genre’ World Fantasy Award, his work is not nearly as widely known or praised as it ought to be, certainly when compared with that of Amis, Barnes, Ishiguro, McEwan, Rushdie and others from 1983. The devout in Priest’s
congregation seem overwhelmingly to be science fiction and fantasy readers.
Not for the first time, their judgment is the more acute. The mainstream neglect is surprising, though, because Priest’s prose, even when engaged with the fantastic, has always been apparently prosaic — provided, that is, one means unshowy, straightforward and devoid of ostentation. For the cumulative effect of his plain sentences, quotidian events and ordinary settings is decidedly poetic, haunting and dreamy.
The setting for The Gradual is the Dream Archipelago, an imagined landscape that has featured in several of his previous novels, and in short stories from the 1970s. Though it was strongly suggested in The Affirmation (1981), the first novel partly set in the territory, that the huge group of islands might be no more than a schizophrenic delusion, they have acquired solidity in subsequent books. Indeed, The Islanders (2011) masqueraded as a Baedeker to the place.
This is a more conventional story, though a bare description of what happens hardly sounds promising.