I’ve just finished reading a very intriguing novel – Mortals, by Norman Rush. I’m not sure where I heard of Rush or why I was drawn to read it but somehow or other it appeared on my pile and made its call for my attention.

It’s a big book in lots of ways. Physically it’s 710 pages of small print that follows closely (the close-personal, free-indirect-speech sort of closeness for those writers amongst us) Ray, a professor of English Literature specialising in Milton who also happens to be a CIA agent living in Gabarone the capital of Botswana and who, also, deeply loves his wife. The narrative is paced in a most mysterious but engaging way, slow, almost ponderous, and yet rarely anything but riveting, trawling through Ray’s mind which constantly throws up new and fascinating perspectives on what it’s like to be alive. (Literature, he thinks at one point, is humanity talking to itself, and here is a wonderful example of the same). The second half of the book changes pace dramatically, from a story that is primarily about noticing to one trapped in action, but the quality of noticing is, in effect, just carried forward so that even in the most dramatic instants there is still a mind watching, calculating, ruminating.

I loved this book but I’m not sure who to recommend it to because I don’t know who in the world still has time for this sort of careful, poised narrative. There’s a link, here, to a review of it by the wonderful James Wood, but I don’t recommend reading it until after you’ve read the book because he gives away too much of the plot (and, strangely, finds themes in the book which I entirely missed), I only point it out because Wood, also, loves the book. This is how he sums it up in the last paragraph:

‘Mortals is a deeply serious, deeply ambitious, deeply successful book. Like all such books, it is not without faults. … But big books flick away their own failings and weaknesses, make insects of them. And how much is accomplished here! For once, knowledge in an American novel has not come free and flameless from Google, but has come out of a writer’s own burning; for once, knowledge is not simply exotic and informational, but something amassed as life is amassed, as a pile of experiences rather than a wad of facts. (Botswana is never a backdrop but always the fabric of Rush’s fictions, and he clearly knows and loves the country.) And for once intelligence is not mere “smartness,” but an element inseparable from the texture and the movement of the novel itself. For once it is novelistic intelligence, for which we should give thanks.’


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