“Devotion” by Ros Barber – review

If you were being crushed by the unshakeable weight of a profound grief and you were told it could be taken away forever by a pioneering neurological procedure, would you take that opportunity?  Can the spiritual side our existence be defined by the laws of chemistry, biology and physics?  And what are the implications of a world where apparently undesirable mental states such as guilt, grief and even extreme religious views can be “cured”?  “Devotion” explores all these questions and many more besides; I found the reading of it a pretty intense emotional and intellectual exercise in the best possible sense.  You will need to have your brain well and truly engaged to get the most out of it, but the rewards are there if you do.

I really don’t want to say too much as regards the plot, as to give away any spoilers would completely derail the journey on which the story takes you, so instead I’ll simply set the scene.  Finlay Logan is a psychologist mourning the death of his daughter Flora in a tragic accident.  April is a teenage girl who blew up a bus full of students in the name of God.  Both are tormented by some traumatic – and downright hideous – events in their past, and when Dr. Logan becomes professionally involved in April’s case he realises that the mental and emotional experiences of this unfortunate girl might actually have a significant bearing on his own crumbling life.  Dr. Gabrielle Salmon is a neurologist to whom he turns for help; her extraordinary claim is that she is able to provide the experience of a direct connection with God through electrical stimulation of the brain, and that such an experience can permanently transform the lives of previously troubled individuals.  At first Logan is sceptical, but the question is already planted in his head, and the reader’s: does God have to be an external entity in order to be real?  Can He legitimately be made to feel as real to us as other emotional sensations whose existence we would never dream of denying, such as love and compassion?  From this initial proposition the novel casts its intellectual net wider and wider until the very nature of reality itself is called into question, and we are left wondering if reality is in fact just a construct of our own minds.

If this is all starting to sound like a philosophy essay I can promise you the book doesn’t read that way.  There are big philosophical questions looming undoubtedly, but there is also a story, an engaging and also very sad one about just how thoroughly grief can dismantle a human life.  Logan has a son, a wife and friends who are all in turn affected by his emotional demons, and it’s their story too.  What is more, despite the fact that on paper the subject matter sounds somewhat depressing, the author’s hypnotic and exquisite prose elevates even the most awful moments into something profound and beautiful even while the events themselves are ugly.  Ros Barber is a poet as well as a novelist and it shows.  I can’t imagine enjoying this story so much in anyone else’s hands; on every page there were turns of phrase that made me catch my breath they were so perfect.  Even if the synopsis doesn’t grab you, read it for the writing because her style is sublime.

Ultimately, the idea on which this tale hangs is not a remote and fanciful hypothesis.  In the author’s skilful hands it all suddenly seems completely plausible.  “Devotion” is actually set at an indeterminate point in the near future, a “post-Dawkins” world that has seen a gradual shift in attitudes towards science and religion; but really it could be almost any day now.  On the one hand science is the voice of reassurance, and for Logan it might just be the only thing that can help him get to where he wants to be.  On the other hand there is a faint air of menace in the apparent ease with which minds can be altered at the drop of a hat, electronically poked into supposed spiritual enlightenment.  All too recognisable too is the push to medicate against everything, even emotion itself; the drug Logan takes in order to alleviate his suffering does indeed dull the pain but also sends him into a mental stupor.  In a way the central conceit is simply the next logical step along a road that already feels familiar.

It’s been a few days now since I finished this novel and I’m still thinking about it; I have the feeling I’m going to carry on thinking about it for some time to come.  Many of the more profound questions the author declines – quite rightly – to answer; how we respond to the startling, and potentially controversial, ideas in this mesmerising book is left very much up to us.

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