July 11, 2011

A remarkable young heroine

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The heroine of The Echo Chamber, Evie Steppman, has hearing so developed, she can even listen to the past. She recalls conversations taking place while her mother was pregnant with her and overhears voices coming from photographs of the Lagos marketplace of her childhood. Born and raised in Nigeria during the final years of British occupation, Evie moved with her father to Edinburgh and, four decades later, lives holed up in an attic surrounded by the scraps of a peripatetic life. As Evie’s hearing fades, she works diligently to compose her memoir, fearfully facing the prospect of a soundless world,

Like other fictional children who witnessed great political changes (think Oskar in The Tin Drum or Saleem in Midnight’s Children) Evie is well aware of the difference brought about by her keen hearing. Her extraordinary auditory powers made her feel like a freak but also a catalyst of the global changes occurring around her. Her memoir consists of stories from her own life, but also transcriptions of her mother’s journals, harrowing letters from childhood friends describing the massacres of the Nigerian Civil War, and the fairy tales her father told her before she was born. This gives the novel a crowded, lively feeling; it’s not until the reader reaches Damaris’ diary that we realize how much of her life Evie has spent alone. 

Damaris is Evie’s lover—a flighty actress and hanger-on to a Bowie-like rocker. The diary documents the women’s courtship and follows the course of their love to the United States, where Damaris is following a tour and Evie becomes preoccupied with recording the ambient noise of American streets. Author Luke Williams asked colleague Natasha Soobramanien to write these entries, which make up two key chapters allowing the reader to see Evie from the outside and giving the novel some badly needed emotional resonance. 

Williams, who is Scottish, blends interests in history and storytelling to create an impressive novel of ideas and sounds, from the brittle clatter of the expatriate cocktail party to the sonic emptiness of a lonely life. The air of melancholy that floats over this novel is mitigated by Williams’ elegant style and vivid imagination. The Echo Chamber is not an easy novel, but one in which the skillful fusion of reality and fantasy powerfully reverberates for the engaged reader. 

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