Sylvie’s Riddle

Review by Andrew Crumey

Published in the Guardian

Sylvie’s Riddle
Alan Wall
Quartet, £15

With his complaint about the “Two Cultures” of art and science, C.P. Snow could hardly have guessed he was sparking a whole new cross-disciplinary industry. Wall’s novel is billed as the fruit of a year-long fellowship in collaboration with a particle physicist. The cover shows bubble-chamber tracks superimposed on a nebula; the title suggests we might be in for another Sophie’s World.

In fact the story begins more like a thriller. Owen Treadle is an amnesiac trying to reclaim his identity. Sylvie is his wife; Owen is her riddle. He is a film maker, she is a lecturer interested in the cultural role of images. She finds solace with her lover Henry, an art dealer whose prized possession is some etchings from Picasso’s Vollard Suite, showing the artist as lustful Minotaur.

Thus the novel’s recurring motifs are mapped out: lenses and mirrors, artist and model, labyrinths and caves. Promising stuff, and Wall is a writer who can do much with this sort of material – his best-known work, The School Of Night, was an intricate novel themed around Elizabethan conspiracies. But although Sylvie’s Riddle shows the same alert intelligence at work, the result is less than the sum of its parts.

Sylvie is the centre of interest, her role at a fictitious Liverpool institute being, it appears, professor of things in general. Parts of the book are given over to her lectures, her big idea being that we see everything through lenses and make constellations out of random impressions. This is hardly earth-shattering, and what passes for insight in her case is not so much the patterns she has made, more the data to which she applies them. So we get a lot of information on Picasso and other artists: interesting enough in its own right, but not a story.

She also looks at Hubble telescope images and notes – but does not explain – how they involve a great deal of human intervention. She ponders the alleged meeting between Milton and Galileo, muses on the revolutions of Picasso and Einstein, and gets a physicist to come and talk to her students. Perhaps Wall didn’t go to many science lectures during his fellowship, because the physicist here sounds exactly like Sylvie. “We talk of the life of stars, playing Boswell to the Great Cham of nature… We turn everything into biographies, we tell each other stories all the time, because we must die.”

In fact everyone in this novel sounds like Sylvie; the language throughout is steeped in literary allusion, full of rhetorical gesture. This works best in the case of Henry, with whom Sylvie regularly enjoys pizza and something more in the Picasso Room. He is the kind of posh, ageless, stoical character you could imagine being played by Geoffrey Palmer. Also enjoyable, though peripheral, is Hamish, Sylvie’s meddling colleague. Unburdened by having to deliver any information at all about Picasso, Minotaurs or lenses, he can serve as the simple, effective comic character he is.

A further sub-plot concerns a mystic who claims to be able to live without eating. This turns out to be the way in which the novel finally reasserts itself as a thriller, when one of her disciples – Owen’s muse – starves herself to death. Memories come back, vengeance is sought, and a denouement is reached.

Owen’s surname evokes treading through treacle; his profession at one point prompts a discussion about lack of focus. These seem deliberate authorial intentions. Really, though, this book is like one of Henry’s re-warmed pizzas: a colourful jumble of toppings hiding a simple traditional base.