Ros Barber is not someone who shies away from a challenge. She composed her award-winning first novel, The Marlowe Papers (2012), entirely in iambic pentameter. Devotion, her provocative latest work, may leave behind that poetic constraint but it wrestles instead with love, death, parallel universes and — the thorniest question of all — whether God really exists.
Barber’s hero is the tortured criminal psychologist Finlay Logan. In his day job, he is assessing the sanity of April Smith, a silent young woman who has blown up a bus in what appears to be a religious protest. In his personal life, Finlay is grappling with the death of his own daughter, who fell from the sky in a parachute accident. Both April and Finlay struggle to understand what has happened to them, sharing secrets, silence and an inability to deal with the world around them. “If religious fundamentalism is a form of mental illness, what about grief? For surely, one as much as the other will drive a person to insensible acts,” Finlay muses.
Devotion is set in an entirely believable near-future, a world where children have microchips in case they go missing and driverless cars “slink into your slipstream and maintain their perfect metre”. In this only slightly distorted version of our own reality, April represents the new breed of terrorist: the religious extremist fighting for their God in an atheistic society that increasingly sees faith as a form of madness. Her counterpart, Finlay, is a non-believing man of science: “There is no fucking God. Because it simply wasn’t possible that God the Father would smear your twenty-one-year-old daughter across a field in the Surrey Hills.”
This stand-off is shattered by the arrival of Gabrielle Salmon, a scientist whose consciousness studies have enabled her to reproduce “Religious, Spiritual and Mystical Experiences (RSMEs)” by stimulating the brain. Her experiments, in which she herself has been a guinea pig, result in what she claims is a divine connection for her subjects, transforming their chaotic, pain-ridden lives with an all-consuming inner peace. Finlay becomes obsessed with this idea. Is it a hoax? Could it bring his lost daughter closer? Should he put April through it? What about himself?
It is at this juncture that Barber begins her own experiment with her readers. Until this point her effortless prose carries one through a straightforward narrative. Now we find ourselves standing at a door with Finlay, who is paralysed by indecision. “Here I am, he thinks, at one of those semi-transparent surfaces scientists use to split the wave of a single atom . . . If I were pure light, I would both bounce off and pass through.”
And, thanks to the generosity of literary possibility, Barber ensures that he does both. We watch as he turns around and walks away from the procedure and then again as he goes towards it. Two parallel universes are laid out in which we observe two parallel Finlays coping with April’s trial and his disintegrating marriage. Such dual narratives demonstrating how lives change with a single act have become common but Barber executes the trope neatly enough here, probing what true self- knowledge really means, how easy it is to change course and what the effect might be on those around us.
Devotion can be challenging and at times a little confusing. But Barber’s command of language helps engross the reader. She may have left poetry behind but her lyrical touch is felt throughout, enlivening what could have become a grim meditation on loss with beauty and even humour. At one point a dog’s meanderings attempt to stitch back together an estranged couple: “Achilles shuttles between them, darning the hole they have made, backwards and forwards like a needle . . . ”, while Finlay’s appeal is described as one “whose face was less Hollywood and more independent art movie requiring subtitles”.
The focus may be on the eternal questions but it is Barber’s ability to capture the small details of humanity that makes Devotion worth the read. We may not emerge with any answers about God’s reality or our own place in the world but, like the atom that can exist in two places at once, in some ways we realise that choices don’t really matter. They fade compared with a father’s grief for his daughter, a girl’s horrific attempts to repress her own sorrows and human beings’ desperate, often futile need to communicate with each other.
Devotion, by Ros Barber, Oneworld, RRP£14.99, 288 pages