“The events that resulted in Bolsover’s presence at the Alpha Hotel are closely related to his memories of his wife.” James Watson Bolsover is an apparently normal middle-aged man, a shy yet soulful engineer turned technical writer who for many years shared a passionate marriage with his lovely wife, Katherine. Bolsover’s wife and his deep interest in his work made his life perfect, but then–by chance, misfortune, bad luck–he lost Katherine and, with her, his innocence. Now he travels by sea to a remote island and checks into what seems to be an ordinary hotel; in this safe haven he hopes to understand the past and start afresh. But we quickly discover that all of the hotel’s occupants, like Bolsover himself, have uncertain histories: All of them are “someone else,” seeking to leave their former lives behind.
As Bolsover grows accustomed to his new surroundings–and close to a new woman–the truth of his life trickles out like blood from a wound. He is not quite the simple fellow he seems, but a man who has carefully shielded his own history not only from others but also from himself. Culpability, identity, morality, and luck–all these play a part in a story that echoes our own lives.
Writing in terse, elegant, and irresistible prose, Martin Corrick proves himself a new British master. By Chance is an unforgettable novel that combines intelligence with emotion, and lingers in the mind.
Praise for Martin Corrick’s The Navigation Log:
“Deeply moving . . . This remarkable first novel owes the maturity of its tone . . . to an elegiac vision that reaches beyond death to [a] powerful network of connections that encircle the present and the past.”
–The New York Times Book Review
“The main delight of this book is its loving re-creation of time and place. Corrick has an uncanny ability to enter into the life of the thirties and to draw out details that reveal both the sweetness and the blandness of country life.”
“The Navigation Log flies like an arrow, swift and true. You may weep, but you will also thrill.”
–James Salter, author of Last Night
“Corrick’s ear for dialogue . . . adds humour and pace to the account of parallel lives in the realms of earth and sky.”
–The Times Literary Supplement
“Carefully crafted in the manner of Waugh and Maugham . . . rich with period ambience and dry wit.”
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||401 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Very well: here’s a brisk afternoon in winter, evening coming on, the last of the light falling on a seaside town of white-painted houses with blue doors. A solitary man is lodged on a bench on the quayside, a man in late middle age, a square-looking man with two large suitcases, his overcoat tugged closely about him, a man going by the name of James Watson Bolsover.
He’s looking this way and that—what’s his problem? Anxious, is he? Something bothering him? But wait—surely that’s a smile on his lips? Whatever his troubles, at heart he’s a happy man, this Bolsover, waiting for a ferry, eager to depart, eager to begin. Oh yes, I’m happy. I’m perfectly happy! He looks this way and that and it occurs to him that this pretty harbor, lodged between the ocean and the dark hills behind, is the very threshold of fable, from which the hopeful migrant, escaping from persecution real or imagined, departs for a new world—at which Bolsover laughs aloud. Oh yes, these are different times, modern times, and no doubt this pretty little town rents itself to the makers of sentimental films, the heroine’s dress fluttering prettily as she waves from the pier head, the departing ship leaning to the wind, rising to the ocean swell—
He turns suddenly and stares along the length of the quay, but there is nobody in sight. Teatime, no doubt, in this innocent little place—the chink of cups, harmless chatter, polite laughter. A herring gull slides across his field of view and he is reminded of the elegant and not impossibly difficult mathematics that allow flight to be understood. In the formula ½ρV2, for example, the Greek letter rho relates to the density of air and V stands for its velocity: the expression is a universal of aerodynamics, essential to the calculation of lift and drag and hence to the achievement of flight. Isn’t that formula just as elegant, just as magical, as the herring gull? Certainly it is. The more you understand—so Bolsover thinks, in his simple way—the more beautiful things become. Here’s a fragment of mathematical language based on Newton’s fundamental laws, and the gull in flight—he allows himself this fancy—is an expression of that truth: the gull is truth written in space, written in free air, written with the bird’s white wings on the dark gray of the sky! Oh, certainly it is!
One must not be harsh in judgment. This man knows that he is not the inheritor of a considerable mind. Fine consciousness cannot come naturally to a working man born in Swindon. However, he has tried to improve himself, and to a degree has succeeded. He is thoughtful—we might say, rather too thoughtful. He needs to understand, and to that end has read a great many books—fiction, poetry, history, science. Oh yes, his reading lacks discrimination: he’s aware of that, too, and knows that, in consequence, his mind is a junk room. But the attempt to understand is worthy, even honorable, and has expanded both his knowledge and his imagination. He is willing to contemplate possibilities, can envisage himself writing the script for a romantic film, a film of love and adventure in which a tall ship makes ready for sea, the gulls raise their clamor, a lovely girl waves her handkerchief from the quay, and so forth. Bolsover has written many things in his time, mostly of a technical nature, to be sure, but it’s all words, after all, and surely a film wouldn’t be beyond him —EXT., DAY, WINTER, the camera panning across the harbor to discover the captain in close focus, a man alone, gnarled cheeks, strong hands clasped behind him, eyes gazing out toward the empty horizon in a way one must presume to be meaningful—but no, I’m Bolsover. I’m just an ordinary man sitting on a bench, waiting for a ferry, doodling, riffing, just an ordinary man—
Movement catches his eye and Bolsover stands up suddenly—who’s this? Along the quay glides a girl in roller-boots, perhaps ten years old. She’s wearing a fluffy pink jacket, a pink skirt, pink tights, and pink boots. Her legs are long and thin, reminding Bolsover of the flamingos he’s seen in the pages of National Geographic, tall birds stalking African shallows—ah, yes, that same angularity, that awkward grace!
Aware of him, keeping her distance, the girl describes a sequence of easy circles, her boots clicking across the joints between the stones, her knees a little bent, her body riding poised and steady. She’s very good. She’s practiced all right, this girl, and she’s putting on a show, elaborately casual, for him and for herself.
It’s just a girl in roller-boots—Rollerblades, perhaps; one must be precise. Bolsover sits down. She circles and he leans back, spreading his arms along the back of the bench, watching her. All right, then. Just a girl who wants an audience. He looks up at the hurrying clouds; it’s a brisk day, sure enough. Early that morning, from the window of the train, he had spotted the warning wisps of cirrus and predicted exactly this ragged sky—he knows his stratus from his cumulus, having developed, in a recent period of spare time, a working knowledge of meteorology. He’s interested in all sorts of things, this fellow. A brisk day! Oh, yes, it’s a fitting day on which to depart one’s former life, begin another. Begin again? A silly notion, since life’s all one. Can people change? Could my old ma be imagined in a long summer dress and a straw hat, clipping deadheads into a basket and giving visitors, from time to time, the benefit of a trilling laugh? Ridiculous! And as for Dad—you awkward old sod!— Dad could never have dozed in a deck chair in a Surrey garden, rustling his newspaper and whistling through his mustache. Ah, yes, Mum’s red hands, Dad’s awkward deference, his humble walk, his ancient trousers bagged and polished by a foreman’s life on the railway—no disgrace there, but no grace either, and the pair of them long dead, long years mourned. Bolsover abruptly sees them plain and clear, the two that bore him all those years ago, and feels a powerful but quickly passing sorrow. Only his sister, Sylvia—yes, Sylvia lying on her stomach, endlessly reading some girls’ comic and kicking her buttoned shoes in the air—only Sylvia aspired to grace, and in consequence sought out and married an unspeakable fellow she called Frederick, in whom she had mistaken silence for depth, vulgarity for strength, idleness for grace. My sister, Sylvia . . . Yes, he had a sister once, and now she has entirely forgotten her brother.
Bolsover looks again at the ragged clouds. It is not true that Sylvia has forgotten him; she has discarded him, as being unworthy of her. That is the truth.
In such a fashion, while the girl in pink circles about him, Bolsover freewheels through the past, from time to time glancing—perhaps a little anxiously—along the length of the quay; but they remain alone, the solitary man and the wheeling girl.
He had been a square boy, young Bolsover, neither handsome nor witty, and had possessed an air of simplicity. In the usual English way he was poorly educated and, in his early life, not well read; but he was always curious. He wanted to know how things worked, where they came from, what their purpose was, what they were made of. He was not a systematic thinker: he was simply curious, and maintained his curiosity despite his parents, who were not the sort to see purpose in idle curiosity. Idle curiosity? Is it wrong to want to know why things are as they are?
According to his first notebook, the boy was ten years old when what he later called “the first big question” came to him. It was the summer of 1954 and he was strolling home from school when the words “How did I get here?” sailed into his mind from the clear blue sky, stopping him on the corner of Bywater Street. In those days there was a bomb site on that corner, dating back to the first winter of the war. Brambles and wild growth had colonized the cellars of a collapsed house and created a secret garden, something every child should have. The boy slipped through the fence and went straight to his hideaway. The remains of a chimney still stood; if he lay on his back, he could look up through a funnel of sooty bricks that somehow made even a common scrap of blue sky look remote and strange. The boy lay down on the tiles of the hearth, put his hands behind his head, and asked himself the question again. “How did I get here?”