Finally, a book that isn’t afraid to take ugly and make it beautiful.
From the opening pages of Andrew McGahan’s latest fictional offering, we are bombarded with the dichotomy – and parallels – between ugly and beauty, whether it be aesthetic, figurative, primal, tangible, archetypal, human or metaphysical – it’s there, peeping from every placid or tumultous corner.
From the four corners of the earth to the very corners of its characters minds, Wonders of a Godless World takes its reader on a journey along the very edge of a precipitous chasm – one that plummets and rises and skirts into the morass of madness, only to soar free, high and clear into the calming plains of sanity. Readers certainly take a trip that challenges the very concept of conscious awareness – not only via the clutches of madness but via the confines of the mortal body – of physical trappings and spiritual fluidity.
When a new patient – The Foreigner – is introduced to the mental hospital on an unnamed tropical island, The Orphan, a mute, ugly, backward girl who works on the wards, is mystified by his comatose state. Pale, hairless and staring, this newcomer is trapped in a vacant body that seems to develop the power to talk to the Orphan – if only in her own mind.
When bizarre and crippling events begin to unfold at the hospital, The Orphan, along with other staff, become suspicious and horrified that this defenceless Foreigner could actually be the cause of these terrible unfoldings. As the relationship between the Orphan and the Foreigner begins to develop into one of increasing spiritual and physical dependence, greater terrors befall the inmates of the hospital – terrors the Orphan, in her limited capacity, begins to question, despite her obsession with and dedication to this mysterious man – the first and only man who has ever understood her or supported the very fabric of humanity that underpins her mental and physical shortcomings.
As this remarkable story unfolds, we learn not only about the past (and the terrible future) of this frightening, immortal stranger – we also learn about the very fabric of our planet – and of our universe. McGahan takes us on a remarkable and eye-opening journey into water, wind, rock – even outer space and the very workings of our solar system in this carefully structured and researched novel.
For those with a latent interest in the mechanics of our physical world, this is truly a mindboggling trip, and for those, like myself, who’ve always harboured a Jungian fondness for archetypal and metaphysical reasonings behind man’s relationship with the physical, much satisfaction will be found in the author’s exploration of the infinitesimally fine line between the real and unreal – between macro and micro, between man and his maker. And of course – between sanity and madness.
Although brilliantly researched and plotted, intellectually stimulating and rewarding, I did find Wonders of a Godless World a little long-winded and repetitive at times, most particularly when it came to The Orphan’s repeated musings and questionings. I’m not sure if this was an editing fault or just something that wangled its way into my own personal interpretation, but there was plenty a moment I felt the fizz of the storyline dulled by garrulous repetition or action that was far too slow to build. Initially, I presumed this was used as tension building-blocks between the next striking occurence, however, in hindsight, these blocks are completely unnecessary and, in my opinion, impede the high points rather than hold them back temptingly, like a tightly bound spring.
Happily, there are also plenty of moments where the reader is drawn anxiously to the page – or more accurately – unwilling to even close the page and so miss the possibilities poised to erupt. Like the thundering volcano that features heavily in the lives of its characters, Wonders of a Godless World is sure to awaken the senses of anyone who cares to dip into its explosive pages – and however much you enjoy the novel, it will certainly give you something to rumble about for a long time to come.