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Colin Thubron: Distance

Thubron has a way with words that makes you feel, whatever his subject, you would be pulled in and immersed in his prose. The plot of this novel is not particularly original – it’s the whole amnesia-and-whatever-happened-to-the girl-he-loved story – but it works because Thubron writes so well, showing the passion yet, in good English fashion, keeping his distance.

Edward Sanders is sitting in a car and has no idea why he is there or where he is or how he got there. It turns out that he has lost the past two years plus. He goes to a local doctor for help but then walks out when the doctor does not seem able to help immediately. He has an envelope in his pocket with an address on it and goes to the place, which turns out to be his home which he shares with Naomi. Unfortunately he has no memory of Naomi and, indeed, is not interested in her, so leaves again.

He meets a girl whom he think he remembers – Sharon – but she does not know him. Gradually, he reconstructs his memory of Jacqueline, a colleague at Cambridge University where he works (they are astronomers looking for black holes (him) and supernovae (her)), with whom he has had an affair. Much of the book is taken up with his gradual recollection of his affair and how it went wrong (in short, she lost interest or, at least, wanted some space between them). His memories gradually return and Jacqueline becomes more and more part of his life, with Naomi retaining only peripheral interest, despite her attempts to get him back. There is a punch line, of course, and, inevitably not what we might have expected. But the story-line, interesting though it is, is not what makes this novel. It is Thubron’s control of language – you feel that he has laboured over every single word like a poet more than a novelist – and his ability to create a whole out of the disparate elements of the Jacqueline love story, the amnesia, the astronomy, their diving holidays and his attempt to rebuild his life.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Heinemann