Ros Barber was one of my lecturers when I did my Creative Writing MA, and Ros Barber is one of the subjects of my forthcoming series of contemporary writer video interviews ***COMING SOON***. In short, I had a biased reason to enjoy Devotion, which is also the first (published) novel I’ve ever read in full by someone I was personally acquainted with.
Despite being a bit wary of the novel’s high concept opening set up (regular readers will know I don’t like sci-fi), I was very pleased by the fact that once Barber’s created her gently futuristic setting, she peoples it with beautiful, broken, personalities whose struggles and lives possess great emotional and intellectual weight. This is a very human novel about the experience of grief and trauma that offers a stylistically interesting conclusion in the vein of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a choice that is justified by content and executed with aplomb.
Finlay Logan is a psychologist who’s been assigned to review the case of April, a young woman who detonated a bomb on bus full of atheist students in an act of Christian fundamentalism. In Barber’s future, all religion is extreme, yet scientists think they have found a neurological cheat to replicate the wholeness felt by those of devout faith, beautifully lacking all the dogmatic sense of superiority/sing-songy claptrap of organised religions. The novel plays with quantum theory in an engaging and unpatronising way, and the input of this – and repeated references to the multiverse theory – set up a rollicking final 100 pages where we see the sad life of Finlay continuing both with and without the exposure to the god-replicating process. It can be read as science fiction or as gentle scientific fact – a response to anti-depressants or a response to a placeboic discovery of self in beatific repose.
Finlay is a very unhappy man, mired in grief after the loss of his daughter, Flora, a couple of years previously. His fractured relationship with his son (semi-estranged) does nothing to fill the void left behind by his grief, and his flirtations with adultery do not either. Finlay sinks lower and lower into himself and into his thoughts, blaming himself, blaming others, constructing elaborate hypotheses regarding his daughter’s death, and as his paranoia builds and he feels more and more overwhelmed, we also learn about the causes of April’s disconnect from society: a long-standing history of parental neglect topped off by a horrendous gang rape she did not report to authorities, family or friends. This injured, unhappy, young woman seeks a sense of fulfilment in religion, in the idea of a vengeful god who will help her punish the world that has inflicted so much pain upon her. Her faith is a guide into the darkness, it is a repressive measure that keeps her pain internal until it expands outwards at great cost – both to her freedom and to the lives of the people that she kills.
The reader is neither encouraged to condemn or forgive April, Barber leads us more towards an attempt to understand her. And that is the strength throughout this book, and the reason why I was so pleased by the direction in which it went. The tinkling towards a dystopian, terrorist, thriller near the beginning worried me. I feared science fiction would distract from humanity, but this is a believable, near, future, where not much is different except for the widespread use of 3D printing and wearable tech. What hasn’t changed, and what will never change, is the psychology of people. Is what people care about and how people react – internally and externally – to the things that happen to them. Is how people process grief and what happens if they don’t. It’s how a focus on the past bleeds into, distorts and can potentially destroy the present. It’s how failing to engage with the self leads the self into dark, lonely places that are ever harder to escape from.
There is no solution, though, to unhappiness. There is no perfect way to rid the self of suffering, for (as all of us with Buddhist dogs know for sure) all existence is suffering. And Barber captures this. All of her characters have lost someone, or something, and all of them seek solace in differing ideas. Is religion any better than an affair, in terms of the boost to self-esteem? Are anti-depressants any better than psychotherapy?
If there was a correct answer, there wouldn’t be the debate. Barber speculates here about a future where religion, which is a source of contentment to many people, is stripped of its ability to soothe and retains primarily its motivation towards hatred. It’s a very different speculation from the one she makes in her first novel, The Marlowe Papers (which questions whether or not Christopher Marlowe wrote the plays attributed to my fellow West Midlander William Shakespeare), but Devotion uses the same technique of matching a tone and a structure to the matter at hand. This is a broadly psychological novel about loss, and it connects well and repeatedly with a reader. I was crying on pavements as I walked and read, I was crying on public transport (though who doesn’t?), and I am still thinking about the novel’s two conclusions many hours after it ended.
This is a tragic text, and one where the tragic flaw may well be society’s instead of the protagonist’s. With a public space to explore grief, people are better able to engage with their feelings and not “move on”, but accept and adapt. The loss of a parent or child or grandparent or sibling or loss of trust in general is a harrowing thing, whoever it happens to and whenever it happens to them. But holding onto thoughts and feelings within is the way to turn them darker, to blame the self and to focus inwardly.
Barber captures the consciousness and captures emotion. This is a moving, mature, novel that falsely twists and turns as it reflects the varying, grasping, plays for psychological succour Barber’s characters seek. A great read.