A mysterious man tries to find himself while traversing a hellish landscape of war.
Amnesia is a tried-and-true trope, so much so that it risks being a cliché: everyone from Hitchcock to Ishiguro and Modiano has used it in recent—beg pardon—memory. The reader may despair, then, on being thrust into a scenario involving an amnesiac motorcycle messenger who, having apparently been left for dead, battered and banged up nearly as badly as Laszlo de Almásy of English Patient fame, now finds himself among a band of deserters picking their way around the great armies clashing in the North African desert. Throw in some of the rarified, apocalyptic language of Cormac McCarthy (“A sudarium wrought in the sanguine and phlegmatic humours”; “Perhaps in this ruined state he will live out the last of his time, inanimate, a pedlar of gazes”), mix in some of the good-versus-evil dualism of Moby-Dick, and you have all the possibilities of a derivative hash. Yet, daringly, debut novelist Allison makes the story all his own. His rider—for so, until the penultimate page, is the protagonist known—is a man in search of self-recognition, looking for clues in the bag of letters he carries, but he is also keenly observant of the conflicts among nations and within the part-piratical, part-saintly band of brothers he’s fallen in with. Some are named, and some of their names will soon appear on grave markers; others are simply tagged, such as the “dying man” the rider converses with (about, among other things, dog breeds) in the austere landscape of the Sahara, which is as much a character here as any of the human players. Allison’s tale has an almost hypnotic inevitability that unfolds as the rider shifts his viewpoint from unknown past to an unknowable future in which “I shall become everything expected of me.”
Elegantly and exactingly written. A touch ponderous at times but oddly—beg pardon—unforgettable.