Another Life by Owen W. Knight
Burton Mayers Books, pb, £8.36
By Rima Devereaux
Another Life is a beautiful and thought-provoking meditation on the meaning and purpose of life, seen through the lens of a mystery story steeped in English folklore.
Thirty years previously, a man named Oliver visits a small independent printing press in an English village, where he sees a mysterious book on ancient paganism, which a purchaser refused to allow to be reprinted and whose author disappeared. He then drives around the local area for some time without being able to work out where he is on a map. He stumbles on a village called Durncot where he is entranced by a young woman leaning out of a cottage window. He also finds a message about destiny that has been jammed into the mouth of a Green Man in a stone wall.
Thirty years on, a woman he meets in the street gives him a message about a journey he must go on, but he does not understand. And he is shocked by an encounter with a Cambridge student dressed as a Green Man. Before meeting the strange woman, he dreams about the woman in the village, and makes a connection between the two events.
Back at the printing press, he spots a woman in the photographs of the press’s various Open Days; Bella (as the press’s owners call her) wears the same clothes in every photo and appears not to age. She has the same tattoo, a symbol of immortality intended to ward off evil, as the girl in Durncot. She is looking for someone. The book on paganism disappeared some years previously, but Oliver buys a book of engravings whose author and artist cannot be traced. They turn out to be images of the village of Durncot.
And so the story unfolds. This well-written book’s mixture of prosaic, English detail and a growing sense of the mysterious, along with its allusions to pagan spirituality, are deeply memorable and recalled for me the Song of Albion trilogy by Stephen Lawhead.
We learn about Oliver’s family, in particular his three children, and – in a deliberate echo of the film It’s a Wonderful Life – we realize that, although Oliver thinks very little of himself, he later learns that many tiny incidents in which he was involved have made life better for other people.
The book’s narrative voice and its depiction of details from the natural world are outstanding. It also makes clever use of the microcosm ‘play within a play’ device beloved of Shakespeare, with its reference to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and its theme of pagan myth and the relationship between dreams and reality. We wonder before we get to the book’s conclusion, whether how Oliver interprets what he sees is merely the result of the connections he is making in his mind. This lends the book a haunting air of mystery, similar to the use of the narrative voice in Henry James’s story ‘The Turn of the Screw’.
The end of the book displays a fusion of spiritual wisdom on the purpose of life, in which the afterlife is conceived as something that dissolves the boundary between dreams and reality that has plagued Oliver over the years.