Thursday, November 21, 2013

John MacGregor's "Propinquity": Book Review

This takes place in Australia starting around forty years ago. Clive Lean relates nearly all of the story firsthand, yet his school chum Julian Lake's early portion comes via an omniscient narrative from the outback. John MacGregor conveys Clive's tale from an exuberant sensibility open to irony and levity. By contrast, Julian's snippet comes in a straightforward, unaffected tone: this does, however, make you wonder why this portion departed from the first-person perspective dominating Propinquity.

Originally published in 1986, it's now re-issued as an e-book by the author, who requested my review.  (There remain typos and misspellings; not sure if this is due to transfer to Kindle format or if they were in the printed edition. The author has reported to have revised the e-book since my review.) I liked Clive's schoolboy glimpses of countercultural fervor and political naivete; the author's own subsequent work to assist others abroad, his journalistic coverage of abuses in East Timor and among his homeland's politicians may be predicted from this novel. A lot of Australian-specific references that eluded me, but the general plot however uncanny remains clear.

Clive deals with the ups and downs of his father's garden equipment business while Julian wanders into a seeker's quest. Part two introduces Eustace Harkin, a WWII vet on the down and out, to Clive. A surprising transaction follows, enabling Clive to leave Australia to study medicine at Oxford. At Oxford, he falls in with friends (the Vishenkar group) who experiment with psychedelics. (Meanwhile, Gilberte, their classmate, is a bodyguard for the Italian president, unfortunately Aldo Moro; Alistair, another classmate is in Baby Doc's Haiti, during the era of contras and CIA blowback: their itineraries eventually intersect with the main plot neatly if a bit predictably.) In transit through London, Clive meets Sam Goode; her familial ties to the "Royal Peculiar" status of Westminster Abbey picked up (for me) the pace. This will be sustained by quite a memorable place for a tryst.

Berengaria, not a figure likely to ring any reader's bells, but Richard the Lionheart's peripatetic and bold queen from Navarre, comes to light in Sam's recital. Then, the novel unlocks the Abbey's secrets. Kabir, a Vedic teacher, Joseph of Arimathea, and Gnostics intertwine with Sam's "spellbinding" tale to Clive ca. 1200. The nature of fiction, as in real life, requires this emerges "as told to" in long conversations. (The Benedictine monks as far as I know were removed from the Abbey about forty years before 1599, but I am unsure if this date was shifted forward by MacGregor--or Sam--for the novel's own purposes.)

How students' medical expertise merges with medieval evidence merges in the book's second half. It moves as expected, an entertaining story mixed with a clever, erudite "what-if" premise. Given the dramatic findings, there's an understated tone of acceptance that either betrays the author's own attitude, or the characters' sangfroid in a chiller climate than Australia to the startling revelations. However, a madcap abduction later restores vigor, and earns "eleven minutes of national prime time." It ends in a modest resolution, open-ended while keeping the mysteries uncovered open to possibility.
(Amazon US 7-23-13; the author informs me the typos have been fixed since I read a review copy.)

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