Author and Scriptwriter

'Among the most important writers of contemporary British horror.' -Ramsey Campbell

Friday, 18 March 2011

Loss of Separation by Conrad Williams

It was about time that I wrote something about someone else, so having finished this novel recently, here goes:

I’ll admit it- I was looking forward to this one. Conrad Williams has been around for a while now, and there isn’t another author quite like him in the horror genre right now, blending the visionary and poetic with the visceral on the one hand and the language of technical precision on the other. It’s like a mid-air collision between Clive Barker and J.G. Ballard had taken place, creating a grotesque, impacted-together hybrid that still manages to fly…

Which is more or less the opening image of Loss Of Separation, if you replace ‘Clive Barker and J.G. Ballard’ with ‘Boeing 777 and 747’. The nightmarish image of Flight Z, flown by a dead captain and with its passengers burning alive inside it, haunts the dreams of Conrad’s protagonist, Paul Roan. As well it might; Paul quit his job as an airline pilot after a ‘loss of separation’ occurred- i.e. when he came perilously close to a mid-air collision. Paul decamped to the Suffolk town of Southwick with his girlfriend Tamara to start a new life, only to be almost killed in a hit and run accident that put him in a coma for six months. He woke to find Tamara gone, no-one knows where. Ruth, a nurse from the hospital, takes him under her wing, but she has her own damage to consider; she’s pregnant as a result of rape.

Meanwhile, the townsfolk treat Paul as a sin-eater, bringing him things to burn- mementoes of the things they can’t live with anymore. But Southwick has secrets; disappearances and murdered children. With the help of Amy, a young woman who, like Paul, has narrowly cheated death by accident, Paul starts uncovering them, and in doing so he finds out that Tamara might not, as he thought, have deserted him…

As you can see, there’s a lot going on here. There always is in Conrad’s work. But while in the past, in novels like The Unblemished, London Revenant or Decay Inevitable, there was so much going on that some aspects inevitably didn’t get the development they deserved, here the different elements are perfectly balanced and controlled, as in his BFA-winning 2009 novel, One (and if you’ve not read that yet, you really ought to.) And while there is no shortage of imagery both simultaneously beautiful and horrific, Loss is also Conrad’s most low-key novel to date. This is a powerful, slow-burning book that relies far more on suggestion, reticence and characterisation than his previous works, without ever losing its uncompromising modernity. This is the work of a writer at the top of his form, and not afraid to shift gears and move away from what people might have come to expect him. Paul is also a departure; Conrad’s protagonists may not be Hollywood action heroes, but they’re usually fairly handy, enough to run a reasonable distance or deliver a decent punch. Paul is physically as well as mentally scarred, made deeply aware of his own fragility by recent experiences, suffering from chronic pain and wondering if he’ll ever manage to function and have a life again.

As ever, the aforementioned characterisation is beautifully delivered, and the prose, as in One, has a perfectly-balanced synthesis between poetic language and narrative flow. It’s well-nigh impossible not to be moved by Paul’s plight, and Loss contains scenes that are genuinely disturbing as well (there’s one sequence in particular on a North Sea crossing which might well put you off ferries for life.)

All in all, this is a sterling performance from a writer who continues to go from strength to strength. If you’re a Conrad Williams virgin, this is a damn good place to break your duck; if you’ve read and enjoyed his previous works, then I guarantee you will not be disappointed. Buckle up and prepare for take-off; Flight Z is about to depart…

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