Our book today is The Rationalist, a lean and quite skillful 1993 novel by Warwick Collins. Despite working fairly close to the world of books, I first became aware of this novel when I found it under a particularly stubborn layer of muck at the bottom of a canvas tub at the back of a charity discard depot – to say it ‘flew under the radar’ in the United States would be a bit of an understatement. One potential reason for that failure to achieve liftoff might be signaled in Simon & Schuster’s odd choice to decorate the book’s back jacket not with the usual graffiti wall of glowing endorsements but instead with one line, “It is a strange dark tale, perverse, erotic, and haunting” – one plug, written by Josephine Hart, whose own novels read absolutely nothing like The Rationalist and whose endorsement, therefore, might strike some readers much as a skull-and-crossbones warning label would on a bottle they’d mistakenly assumed was creme de menthe.
Whatever the reason for the book’s relative obscurity, readers who, like me, failed to catch it fifteen years ago missed a real treat. This is a smart, ruthlessly controlled, perfectly executed historical novel of exquisite discretion and an unfailingly high estimate of its readers’ intelligence. It deserves an enormous audience.
It’s the story of Silas Grange, an 18th-century physician operating out of Lambeth during the reign of King George III. Grange is a self-possessed fellow (one of his closest friends tells him he has “a mind as cold as winter,” and he himself admits that he considers himself to be “a man who is not much at liberty with his own emotions”), and Collins’ prose when dealing with him is equally austere – indeed, the book opens with an arm-amputation scene that reads like it was written by a Vulcan: we see and hear the poor patient’s agony and doomed bravery, but the narrative doesn’t feel any of it, won’t let itself … it’s an altogether beguiling experience – it ought to have been a calling-card to Wolf Hall-levels of fame – and it’s no false advertisement: the entire book is crammed with equally excellent set-pieces.
Grange is a man of science, and despite how carefully he schools them, his passions are quite strong – including a sometimes fierce desire to fly into pure inquiry, to risk everything in order that his insatiable curiosity might find hidden truths:
His own strict image of the truth, learned in the academies of Scotland, was central to this notion. One could not use the image of a candle shedding its light upon objects, for the truth seemed to emerge from inside like some internal radiance, as ghostly as the patina on silver. It appeared to him that truth was not prolix or voluble, but crept out shyly from the side, like a man escaping from a house.
When the book opens, Grange would hardly consider himself prolix or voluble, and yet his imagination is vast, and his attentive eyes miss nothing in the seacoast world to which he’s relegated himself:
More than all the other birds, Grange loved the great gray herons that inhabited the marshes, for their solitariness, their silence, their casual grace as they swam upward into the air. He loved them too for the calm, recondite heartbeat of their wings when agitated. In surveying them, their silence moved him to remark on his own solitude, and perhaps therein lay an identity of interests, or at least of common form.When disturbed, they seemed to move upward into the thinner medium as calmly as thought, grasping the air in their big wings like hands.
The precise order of Grange’s world is disturbed when he calls on the town’s enigmatic Mrs. Quill, a woman who on the surface appears as reserved and formidable as he is himself. In their first fretful interview, he’s driven by a confusion of lust and curiosity to an uncharacteristic piece of hyperbole: “I am a rationalist,” he tells her. “If God’s against that, I am against God.”
If this is meant to shock the conventional moralities of the time, it’s got nothing on the proposal Mrs. Quill subsequently makes to him, and from there the novel unfolds in a sequence of developments as predictable and yet appalling as a fifty-car pile-up on an icy road. You’ll be spellbound and transported … the two effects we like to demand of all good historical fiction and yet so seldom get. I haven’t yet hunted down the rest of Collins’ books at the Boston Public Library, but you’ll hear about it when I do – and in the meantime, I can’t recommend this one strongly enough. No matter what you may or may not think of Josephine Hart.