SIMON CHANCE is a man who has had an interesting career; he has been a missionary in Africa amid the Pygmies of eastern Uganda, a suffragan bishop in the west country, and a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, where he has taught Italian literature. It is at Oxford that he lost his wife, who died of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He is now staying in a luxury villa in the south of France with a group of old friends, where his first love is due to join the house party. He goes for a walk in the forest. Like Dante, he finds himself lost in the midst of this life’s journey, with no clear path before him.
The novel is innovative in that the action takes place inside the consciousness of Simon Chance: the novel is his stream of consciousness as he wanders through the dark wood, and these thoughts come to us densely packed and laden with literary allusion. Chance does not simply relieve his entire life during the dark and stormy night of the title: he also relives it through the prism of all that he has read.
Clearly, Dante is a favourite, but each reader will absorb the novel through the medium of his or her own reading. I picked up what I assumed were clear signals from T. S. Eliot, as well as spores from the Carmina Burana and of course, perhaps most clearly of all, the scriptures. But this does not really matter very much; you certainly do not need to be familiar with Dante to understand what goes on in Chance’s head; indeed, it may not even help much. All you need to be aware is that, as in the heads of us all, endless convoluted thoughts rush out when we are stressed. Words become tangled and dense, like the dark forest itself.
The novel is particularly fine in dealing with the terrible question of Alzheimer’s. A hundred years ago, there was no family in Britain that had not been touched by the trauma of the First World War. Today, there can hardly be anyone who has not experienced the slow sad decline of a beloved human being into dementia, the progressive rubbing away of what makes them human, what Nancy Reagan (of all people) characterised as “the long good-bye”.
This is something that many of us carry around inside us, without quite having the words to express what it means; those words are provided by this novel. Its description of the way in which dementia takes hold is astonishingly good. It is not an easy read, but for that very reason it is comforting.
The density of the novel, which is in fact a sort of prose poem, may put readers off, but given the mighty themes of love and death that the author confronts, anything less would seem banal.
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Roman Catholic priest, doctor of moral theology, and consulting editor of The Catholic Herald.
A Dark and Stormy Night
Medina Publishing £10
Church Times Bookshop £9