The Affirmation by Christopher Priest — review

THE AFFIRMATION by Christopher Priest. Gollancz SF Masterworks £7.99

Reviewed by John Howard

The Affirmation was Christopher Priest’s sixth novel, first published in 1981. Never a prolific writer, Priest has published only six novels under his own name since. When it comes down to quality versus quantity, quality is the winner. This reprint from thirty years ago (yes really) is a reminder, confirming just how long ago the quality was in place and for how long it’s been maintained. The Affirmation also shows how enduring certain aspects of Priest’s fiction are: it has much in common (especially the Dream Archipelago settings) with his latest novel The Islanders (2011).

We open the book and find ourselves pitched right into the middle of Priest Country, confronting the resoundingly simple statement ‘This much I know for sure’. What we are told we know for sure is that the narrator is called Peter Sinclair and is twenty-nine years old. Sinclair lives in London, and his life is falling apart as he has lost, in quick succession, his job, flat, and girlfriend. Yet because we are in Priest Country, the most apparently simple and straightforward statement is anything but. (In his perceptive introduction, Graham Sleight draws attention to this and other possible signposts to attempt to keep in view on our journeyings.) This area of Priest Country is a London become unwelcoming and closing itself off. And then almost without realising it, as Peter makes a valiant attempt to get his life together, we follow him into one of Priest’s most vivid and colourful regions, the Dream Archipelago.

Those thousands of islands have become about as familiar territory as it’s likely to get. Nevertheless we are led out of the commonplace and away to places where we may or may not wish to go, and where we may or may not understand or come to achieve some understanding of them. Worlds and identities multiply and interpenetrate, even more subtly than they may seem to: in Priest Country reliability (and therefore unreliability) is always there, like sky or sea. The Affirmation is a deeply human novel in which creator and creation (and reader?) fuse; and yet a novel where reality is what’s on paper, what can be held firm and yet be always threatening to slip out of the hands, away and for ever slightly out of reach. Here that’s the only reality we’ll find.