THE AFFIRMATION is at once an original thriller and a haunting study of schizophrenia; it has a compulsive, dream-like quality. Peter Sinclair is tormented by bereavement and failure. In an attempt to conjure some meaning from his life, he embarks on an autobiography, but he finds himself writing the story of another man in another, imagined, world, whose insidious attraction draws him even further in . . .
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The Affirmation is less sci-fi than pure psychological thriller ending in a cul-de-sac of schizophrenia. Peter Sinclair is a young man dealing badly with the death of his father, a romantic breakup, and lost employment. In an effort to sort things out, he decides to write his autobiography as a means towards self discovery. This work progresses from straight fact through liberal editorial license to finally a complete fantasy tale of another world. At this point, reality (as the listener has come to accept) intrudes and suggests that Peter may not be well grounded in the happenings of things around him. What follows is action that switches between these two worlds as Peter perceives he is slowly coming to grips with the problems all around him. In the end, he appears trapped in a mental hell of his own making.
The sci-fi elements are minimal with Peter's fantasy world possessing a purported immortality treatment. Peter's descent into madness is subtle and nearly understandable given the behavior of people around him (an overbearing sister and suicidal girlfriend). The fantasy world offers a glimpse into Peter's preferences for how the world should operate as well as interpersonal relationships.
The narration is excellent with a good range of voices and a delivery tone that matches the mood of the tale. The speaking pace is a bit brisk and requires careful attention; this is a quick, but dense listen.
I loved The Islanders and its mysterious alternate world, even if I didn't entirely get what the book was about. I'd read that the Dream Archipelago had its origins in Priest's earlier, 1981 novel, The Affirmation, so this seemed like a fitting next step into his catalog.
The novel is about a young man named Peter Sinclair, whose life has fallen apart after the death of his father, a romantic dissolution, and the loss of his job to a bad economy (there's a palpable sense of Thatcher-era British malaise). Peter sets out to find new inner peace by moving into an old house recently purchased by a family friend out in the country, and fixing it up for the man and his wife. While engaged in this, Peter decides to write a memoir of his life. Then, he decides to rewrite it, first changing a few details to be more to his liking, then going all the way into a fantasy world.
At this point, it becomes clear that Peter may not be well, and that some of what he's told us so far might not be so reliable. Then, the book switches gears, and we're reading about the life of another Peter Sinclair, who lives in the world of the Dream Archipelago, which is technologically similar to ours, but has entirely different geography and countries, and a few science fiction-y elements. We learn that the alternate Peter has won a lottery that grants him life extension treatment, requiring him to make a trip by sea into the Archipelago (which has politically distanced itself from the main continent because of an ongoing war there). But, there are some costs, such as total amnesia and a subsequent “rebirth”.
Gradually, the two halves of the story begin to show some parallels, such as the romantic relationships with Gracia/Seri (in each world). Then they begin to reference each other, through the manuscript Peter is working on/carrying with him in each reality, then, ultimately, to merge. Readers have made comparisons to Murakami and other magic realist authors, but I was also reminded of Julian Barnes’s excellent The Sense of an Ending, which was also very “English” in its sensibilities and also turned on the narrator’s memory and understanding of events not being totally dependable.
This is a novel that invites different interpretations. On one level, it could simply be about a man’s harrowing descent into mental illness, the fantasies in his head becoming as real as reality. On another, it could be about a misguided recovery of memory. But The Affirmation is also a Cloud Atlas-like work of literary experimentation, the creation-within-a-creation structure looping back on itself. If you enjoy having your mind blown, pay close attention to events in the last chapters. This is a book that invites a second read, once the final twist becomes clear.
While The Affirmation’s “real world” story is a little depressing, with its references to suicide and psychological breakdown, I was pleased to return to the Dream Archipelago and learn more about its workings. Perhaps I should revisit the Islanders and see if this book has shed any new light on happenings in that one. I also look forward to reading Priest’s story collection, The Dream Archipelago.
I don’t have much to say on the audiobook, except that Michael Maloney reads with a quiet intensity that I thought was a perfect fit for Peter’s voice.