This is an intriguing collection of short stories, many of them set in the 1800s.
A doctor finds himself blanking out regularly. The seizure is heralded by the smell of chestnuts. When he comes to, he finds that, instead of passing out, he had carried on with what he had been doing but with no memory of the lapsed time. He begins to realize that he had been possessed by a better version of himself, who does everything with more panache. Seeing a photograph taken of the other, he sees that he was “ever so slightly handsomer, less stooped with a ‘twinkle’ in his eye and a smile befitting the confidence of a man who hides a secret from the world.” The seizures become increasingly frequent—but where will it end?
A mother in the smoke-filled London of the 1800s worries about her child, whose lungs are being destroyed by the pollution. The way Daniel Mason describes the air made me feel like I could smell it: “oily coal smoke, dull as aspic, which sifted through the antique glazing of the windows and left a scrim upon the sills”. The child is seen by several doctors, and finally one suggests that he be moved to the countryside. But the boy cannot brave the air on the London streets, so the mother tries to find a way to turn his room into a plant-filled space.
A balloonist sees something strange in the sky which looks like a tear in its fabric. Her husband arranges for her to present her findings to the Royal Society, where she is scorned. To prove to the society that she is not a fanciful woman, she goes up again with one of its members, and there it is again: the strange rip that reveals “the sable depths that lay behind the tear in the sky”. But what is it?
We also follow Alfred Russell Wallace, the British naturalist and co-creator of the theory of evolution, as he waits for a reply from Charles Darwin; and Jacob Burke, a pugilist, as he battles his biggest enemy.
Mason is a professor of psychiatry, and each story feels like a psychological portrait of the protagonist: you feel like you’re in their heads. And somehow, setting most of the stories in the 1800s works: Mason captures the feel of the time, and the evolution of science that impacts on some of the stories. I found the last piece, the title story, a bit too abstract and experimental, but really enjoyed the others.