Loss of Separation
By Conrad Williams
Published by Solaris, 2011
Conrad Williams builds on the success of his previous six novels (including the award winning, One and Unblemished) and novellas to bring us Loss Of Separation. It’s a rich back catalogue but for me the standout is his novella Rain, a short but intensely personal piece which focussed as much on character and emotion as horror. That combination of horror through human emotion was very powerful and it’s a technique he exploits to the full in Loss of Separation.
Paul Roan was the first officer of a Boeing 777 when it was involved in a near miss (a loss of separation). Seeking solace and a new start in the remote village of Southwick seems like a way to escape the terrible guilt and nightmares he suffers, but a hit and run accident leaves him in a coma and with a body like “a badly constructed Jenga tower”. With the help of friends Charlie and Ruth he begins the process of rehabilitation in the village, but during the coma his girlfriend Tamara has disappeared so he must also now attempt to find out what happened to her.
In the hands of most other writers, that plot could easily be the basis for a fairly simple love story. In the hands of Conrad Williams it becomes a tragic tale of dark despair and mystery. The first half of the book is a slow paced dark and puzzling affair as Paul gradually comes to terms with his new life and more particularly the strange town and inhabitants of Southwick. This is a town cut off from the rest of society, a place where there is “death shot through those tides” and a place haunted by the darkness of “the craw”.
The second half of the book increases the pace wonderfully towards a fittingly climatic and devastating ending as the depths of the towns black past are revealed. The pacing is excellently handled and Conrad Williams uses remarkable prose techniques to achieve this. At times the narrative is florid and rich, almost poetic, but at other times he uses staccato sentences to introduce that element of confused adrenalin rush. There is one remarkable three page sequence where most of the sentences are two or three word fragments. It’s experimental, it’s challenging, but it’s also fantastically effective in portraying the character’s state of mind. That is where the true power of the book lies, in the characters, and most importantly the main character. Confused and suffering memory loss from his accident, Paul Roan is also haunted by the near miss incident and the loss of his girlfriend. Mix these emotions with powerful drugs, which he requires for pain control and you have a character who frequently steps over the boundaries of reality. These voyages are shown in remarkable visionary sequences which when mixed with the actual nightmares he is suffering create a powerful and unsettling sense of confusion in the reader.
This is a novel of raw human emotion and dark mystery. It has elements of M R James in the sweeping coastal panoramas and the mysterious lone figures who appear within them, elements of The Wicker Man’s residual horror in a cut off community, but most importantly this is Conrad Williams building his own tradition. This is a writer who knows how to reach into the emotional heart of the reader and fill it with untold horrors. This is a writer who is among the very best horror writers around and one who just gets better and better.
Rating 5 out of 5