Ken Grimwood


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2003).

This novel has been reissued after a long gap, and deservedly so. It seems to be one of the best-kept secrets in modern literary history. Sadly, Grimwood died recently, at the age of 59; it was reading an obituary in the press that brought his writing to my attention, and I was quite bowled over by this book.

The basic idea of the book is not original, but the treatment is. The theme is that of time and time paradoxes. The first chapter opens thus: "Jeff Winston was on the phone to his wife when he died." He is in his early forties in 1988 when it happens; immediately afterwards he finds himself a college student again, aged 18 in 1963, with full recollection of his earlier life. Since he can remember the outcome of major sporting events he is able quickly to amass a fortune by betting on the outcome; he also has the intellectual and emotional maturity of a much older man. He therefore drops out of college, becomes rich, and proceeds to enjoy himself. Later he gets married, to a different wife this time, and has a daughter whom he loves passionately. Then he dies again and returns a second time to his student existence. Other lives follow in succession, each different from the last.

Some lives are hedonistic, some romantic and fulfilled, but all end at the same time in 1988. Eventually Jeff meets Pamela, the great love of all his subsequent lives, who is also a Replayer, and he and she continue to seek each other out in their successive lives. But dark notes begin to intrude when the pair make an ill-advised attempt to go public with their experience and are locked up by the military; I found this the least successful part of the book.

Eventually they begin to notice that each time they come back to life they are older, so that the time of clear consciousness and memory available to them is becoming progressively shorter. It seems that they will soon be lost to each other, having ultimately died irretrievably, but in a final twist the book ends on a positive if elegiac note.

Grimwood is a most inventive writer. One of the merits of the book is the continual twists and turns in the story that keep you reading to find out what happens next. But this only works well if you care about the characters, and here, too, Grimwood is successful. Too often in novels of this kind the characters are ciphers, serving only as as reference points to hang the story on. Not so here: Jeff and Pamela are thoroughly convincing and they develop in a plausible manner as their lives go by. So the narrative evolves in a way that is determined by the characters rather than according to the exigencies of a prearranged plot.

But there is much more to this book than the development of character: Grimwood is drawing on a deep well. The story is fantasy, of course, but fantasy based on very ancient ideas as well as on modern physics theories. Reading it, one thinks of reincarnation and of the myth of eternal recurrence which we find in Plato and in Nietzche. There are also hints of Everett's "many worlds" interpretation of quantum theory. But all this is implied, never stated or even openly discussed very much; we see things almost entirely through Jeff's eyes and he is no philosopher. He feels what is happening to him deeply but he cannot understand it or theorize about it except at the most elementary level. Here he seems to speak for Grimwood:

"Our dilemma, extraordinary though it is, is essentially no different than that faced by everyone who's ever walked this earth: We're here, and we don't know why. We can philosophize all we want, pursue the key to that secret along a thousand different paths, and we'll never be any closer to unlocking it."
The decision to eschew speculation was a wise one on Grimwood's part; by avoiding detailed intellectual analysis of what is going on he makes the emotional impact all the greater. Others have tried to make use of these ideas in fiction before but none that I have seen has done so with the subtlety that Grimwood brings to it.

It would be a disservice to readers to classify this as genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy or whatever). It is good enough to stand up in its own right as fiction pure and simple, and fiction of very high quality at that. It is also a metaphysical novel, but one that avoids any direct allusion to metaphysics. It's a book I find I can reread at intervals: a good test indeed.

13 August 2003

%T Replay
%A Grimwood, Ken
%I Perenniel (HarperCollins)
%C New York
%D 1986, 2002
%G ISBN 0-688-16112-X
%P 310 pp
%K fiction
%O paperback
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