The Measure of Darkness

By Liam Durcan

There comes a time for everyone when they have to do an accounting of all that they’ve accomplished, for good or ill, in their personal and professional lives. Usually this happens around middle age, when we can no longer avoid facing the fact that our end is much closer than our beginning.

For architect Martin Fallon this process of looking back and trying to make sense of it all has a specific trigger. After his car is struck by a snow plow on a Quebec highway he suffers a brain injury that leaves him with a condition known as “neglect” which limits his perceptions of the left side of his world, while at the same time leaving him unaware of being so compromised.

From this premise, Liam Durcan, who is both an author and a neurologist, spins an intriguing and layered medical mystery. Martin is a man on a quest to put his life back together by revisiting old haunts and reconnecting with estranged family members. The goal is to reconstruct a life story out of fragments, to fashion something “linear” with integrity and coherence out of what are now ruins (it’s no coincidence that one of Martin’s daughters takes the exploration of urban ruins as a subject for a documentary she is filming). Along the way he might even come to understand what he was doing on the night of his accident.

Part of the story of Martin’s re-integration of memory and personality is intertwined with his fascination with the Soviet-era architect Konstantin Melnikov. Martin recalls a visit to Melnikov’s home years earlier, and he was working on a sort of biographical sketch of the architect at the time of his accident. It is, however, never entirely clear what connection Durcan wants to make between the two men, and one has the sense here of an angle to the novel that is never fully in play.

What is in play is the ambivalent nature of Martin’s affliction. Martin is both partially unaware of and in denial about the consequences of his accident, both of which may be coping strategies. There’s an early episode in the novel when Martin’s brother keeps the fatal condition of someone’s pet hidden from them, and in doing so feels he is doing them a favour. Too much awareness is not always a good thing.

Martin’s accident is also a metaphor for the loss of the artist’s visionary gleam of imagination and creativity. It is an excuse for his awareness that, having achieved the top rank of his profession, “There would never be a golden season and he would never be great. . . . that if there had been a vision, he had abandoned it, or forgotten it, among all the trappings of security.” These are dark thoughts, leading to desperate acts of erasure.

In short, it is perhaps better not to take the full measure of darkness. Humankind can’t bear very much reality.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, January 2016.

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