The Drift by Hester Musson

The Drift is a painfully beautiful account of one man’s interrupted life. George Howarth is a physicist living in 19th Century London, ripped into the 21st Century by the accidental turn of one of his experiments. What follows is his quest to return to the past and then to grapple with his present.

Through a deftly crafted prose, elegant with a Victorian turn of phrase, we are immersed in George’s confusion, seeing our modern world through fresh eyes. And alongside George’s story lies H G Well’s The Time Machine. A gift from his wife, teasingly trying to encourage him to spend more time with his wife and son, George awakes in modern day London clasping the book in his hands. Once again our time sits judged, only this time against Well’s imagined future. None of these comparisons are dwelt upon, but they linger in the mind praising certain social reforms – the emancipation of women – and feeling disappointed in the absence of others – the hope that scientific discovery might herald a different social order but discovering a more confused version of what already existed. At least the haunted feeling George suffers is not physically manifested in anything like the Morlocks of Well’s imagination: humanity has not changed. Perhaps that is cause for relief and sadness.

George was an atomist, one of the first trying to prove the gaps existing within the supposed building blocks of nature. An interest in the forces of nature that separate and draw together, that exist across dimensions, positing the possibility of existing in two places at once, makes a kind of science of coincidence. George enjoys unnoticed mirroring of actions unaware, until much later in the novel, that he has unknowingly been surrounded by relatives since his arrival in the 21st century. And even though we might be tempted to enjoy a sense of meaning in the attraction of blood to blood, that too is questioned. Perceptions of connection are more important.

Why then, has The Drift not been published?  Sadly, I think modern publishing’s leaning towards fast-paced books rather than carefully unfurled novels is the answer. The Drift has a clear and intriguing plot, but it is not revealed at the kind of pace many publishers seem to prefer. But you don’t need pace if character can carry you (think of Orlando or The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis), and George can. What will he do? How can he find purpose again? Nor do you need pace if you can appreciate precise and alarmingly elegant prose, such as: ‘Sound became careless of boundaries in the dark’ or ‘Tiredness, unexpected, brushed his bones with lead’. And this is not to say that the book lacks pace, it is just meted out at a rhythm more in keeping with George’s pre-fibre optic century.

I don’t want to track George’s journey across continents or map out the affections of his wife, so terrifyingly questioned by George in his interrogation of the past. I want someone else to pick up the book and find out for themselves. This novel has a depth and breadth of human interest that harks back to the literary work of science fiction and should be considered in its whole as a book about what it means to be human, about how we exist in the face of futility, how we forge connections in the knowledge of the spaces between us. ‘The universe was a sling, flinging its history far across itself.’ In the end it doesn’t matter who we are, but how we are for those brief moments we are conscious of our time in this particular world. And I am reminded of Borges’ story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ where parallel worlds and times resonate upon the present like a labyrinth, evoking the endless possibility of the universe and our presence within it. How could such considerations be resisted? Someone should publish The Drift!

If any of you know, or happen to be, an agent or publisher who might be interested in reading The Drift, let me know.

Next week I’ll be reading The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers, followed by A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, then Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin. Further reading suggestions are always welcome.