Familiar by J. Robert Lennon, which I finished reading just over a fortnight ago. The premise of the novel is intriguing: 40-something Elisa Macalaster Brown is driving home on one of those long straight American highways on a hot day in July. She’s returning from her annual visit to her younger son’s grave in the town the family left a year or so after his death in a joyriding accident. As she’s driving she focusses on a crack in the windscreen, only, after a moment’s distraction – noticing a crushed can by the roadside out of the corner of her eye – when she next looks at the windscreen the crack has disappeared. The car, she realises, is different: newer, air-conditioned, not her sort of car. And her body has changed: fleshier, her clothes unfamiliar. Her handbag’s the same, but not all of its contents. She is the same person – documents in a conference folder on the passenger seat confirm her name – but not the same in all sorts of unsettling ways. When she arrives home – same address, same house but decorated differently – her husband is still Derek, but his behaviour is changed, more affectionate, and physically he now seems more attractive. And in this world, this other life, she soon discovers, her job is no longer as manager of a bio-tech lab but an administrative role on campus; and most astoundingly, both her sons are alive, though estranged and living on the other side of the country.
The novel brims with ideas and questions. As a character, Elisa is utterly believable. Her background is as a scientist, so she uses her scientific knowledge and understanding to try to figure out what has happened, what is still happening, to her. At first she thinks she may have had a stroke, but other possible explanations also open up. Has she slipped into a parallel universe? Has she woken from a kind of amnesia or psychotic hallucination? And what role does the internet play? Early on, as she is desperate to fill in gaps in her new life, to be able to carry on without being detected, the digital world is a godsend. She reflects that in the past a physical object, such as a letter or a piece of clothing ‘was the conduit to what could be known about a person. . . Now, you search first, remember later. We don’t need memory anymore – the internet has replaced it.’ There’s some dark humour, especially in the passages relating to Elisa getting to grips with her new job and negotiating the joint therapy sessions she has apparently committed to with Derek. But there is I think a kind of psychic terror running through the book, which makes it compelling and troubling. And immensely thought-provoking. What is the nature of consciousness? How would our lives be different if we’d made other choices? Who determines what is real, especially in an increasingly virtual world? Who the hell would be a parent? I was thoroughly inhabited by this novel. It seems I still am.