A Box Of Birds, by Charles Fernyhough, Unbound Books, RRP£20, 288 pages
The study of memory looms large in Charles Fernyhough’s past. In his non-fiction book Pieces of Light (2012) the psychologist explored the processes by which human minds store and retrieve their content and, crucially, how unstable those recollections are. His second novel, A Box Of Birds, exploits the storytelling potential of a field in which much is still unknown: fertile ground for fiction to fill the gaps.
Fernyhough has written about novelists’ dependence on metaphor to describe invisible mental processes, and he owes the title of this book to a metaphor from the ancient Greeks. As a character in A Box Of Birds explains, in Theaetetus, Plato “‘said the mind is like an aviary full of birds, one for every thought or memory you’ve ever had ... the problem is catching them.’” Reach for the wrong bird, and you have a false judgment or unreliable memory.
Here, in the city of Pelton in “UK-D”, just far enough into the future for the night sky to be “sponsored by TransGen Technologies”, scientists are working on a project to make Plato’s idea physical. The “Lorenzo Circuit”, a model built with data from a vast number of brain scans, will represent “the material basis of memory and consciousness. The nature of who we are.”
Charting the brain-mapping data is Dr Yvonne Churcher, a neuroscientist researching the causes of dementia. When her institute is targeted by animal rights activists, she suspects two undergraduates. Both of them harbour secrets that she needs to unearth; meanwhile there are rumours of an escaped laboratory chimpanzee on the run from a sinister biotech that has profit-driven reasons to get hold of the Lorenzo Circuit data. As Yvonne connects these threads, the reappearance of a lost lover adds clues to her history, and she is drawn into a perilous search that accelerates to the pace of a thriller
Yvonne’s analysis of others’ interior lives is impossibly knowing but when she turns the focus on herself, the device works: her laughter is “a mid-brain reflex, some neural cluster buzzing some other neural cluster, and going nowhere near that mythical centre, whatever it is that’s supposed to be me.”
Fernyhough’s exposition can take on a lecture-like tone but elsewhere is arrestingly good prose. In an old hall, for example, “Fixed in oils on the walls, long-dead churchmen avoid each other’s stares.” A thought-provoking novel that wrestles with the fundamentals of human nature.