Lena’s Nest by Rosalie Warren.
I’ve waited more than thirty years to read this story. And I wasn’t disappointed. Can there be higher recommendation? Well, without wishing to alienate the other great writers whose works I’ve read this year (you know who you are folks) if I’m compiling my ‘Book of the Year’ list this one has to come in at number one.
I first got interested in the notion of a Brain in a Vat in the early 1980’s when I was a philosophy student. It was the sort of thing you could discuss when your life was free enough to debate ethics and social issues and call it work! And the interest has never really left me. Memory, identity and reality are my personal holy trinity when it comes to writing and to reading. They are still the things I think and write about regularly, (read about less regularly because I can’t find the material) and they still underpin most of the ‘meaning’ I try to make in the world. The answers, if any there are, still elude me. If only it were as simple as writing the equation: identity = memory and belief. But of course life isn’t that simple. Some things are difficult and they are designed to bend your brain, make you think long, deep and hard and yet never fully come up with an answer or explanation. And these are things worth engaging with.
In the 90’s I revisited the the ‘Brain in a Vat’ concept through the wonderful Dennis Potter’s swansong TV drama series ‘Karaoke’ and ‘Cold Lazarus.’ He wrote both of these knowing that he was dying and he managed to get them shown at the same time – one on BBC and one on Channel 4. Only those with insider knowledge of broadcasting will realise what a revolutionary (and difficult) task this was. What it said to the world. It backfired a bit though, because the contractual difficulties meant that they were unavailable as DVD’s for ages. It still can be hard, or expensive to track down a copy. (Trying to find a link, I see that the boxed set I own commands a £99 price tag these days!) You can pick up the original screenplays second hand, but they’re really best watched. The good news is you can stream BOTH series direct from Channel 4 on demand. Here’s the links. I can’t make it any easier for you! ‘Karaoke’ and ‘Cold Lazarus.’
You’ll need to set aside 8 hours of your time but it will be 8 hours well spent. You’ll also need to be on your mettle throughout. Potter was a master of subtlety and the layers of meaning he manages to invest through visual prompts will leave your brain spinning. If your brain is capable of such a feat.
Karaoke and Cold Lazarus are not what I’d call sci fi, but they probably appeal to those who like sci-fi too. But what Potter is really exploring is identity, memory, and reality, exploring what it is to be a human and what our relationship with society is and might be. Which is exactly what ‘Lena’s Nest’ is about.
And I’d say ‘Lena’s Nest’ is up there with Potters films. It’s something beyond sci-fi and all the better for that. Comparing the two I’d say that while Potter uses the flexibility of the visual medium to layer his complex story, ‘Lena’s Nest’ has to rely on the written word to achieve all this. And, remarkably, in my opinion, it rises to the task. It’s not a difficult read in terms of language, but the comfortable pace is all that’s comfortable about it. The dilemma faced by Lena is complex, horribly real and completely absorbing. (Again, maybe I add the caveat, if you’re interested in the relationship between memory, identity, belief and ask yourself ‘what is reality?’ on anything like a regular basis) If you don’t, you might enjoy it as sci-fi, but I think you’ll be missing out on what it’s really all about.
And what is it really all about? Well I’m not going to go into the plot or spoil the story in any way at all. But what I can say is that it kept me completely gripped. I was willing Lena to make some choices, devastated by others she made, and for the first time in a long, long time, I really felt like I was a part of the narrative as I read it. I was, if you want to use the common parlance, a ‘stakeholder’ in the action. It took me less time to read than the Potter epic, but it also took me outside of time itself into a completely other dimension. And that, for me, is the highest accolade one can give a book. All credit to the author!
You can currently pick up Lena’s Nest for a ridiculous £1.99 on Kindle as an ebook. I’m hanging out for it to come out in paperback so I can read it again. And again.
There’s a facebook page and a website for those who like that kind of thing.
I’ve read previous novels by Rosalie Warren (the pen name for Dr Sheila Glasbey) and enjoyed them all. I’ve even ‘met’ her – virtually at least, for a while I was in an online community alongside her – we’ve both moved on as you do. She also gave me some very good leads on reading matter – I was struggling with some experimental structural narrative issues and she introduced me to the strange but wonderful B.S.Johnson for example. But that’s all by the by. At least, it’s a by-product of the modern way in which one can find out about authors and books. Writers are real people too, and if you like their writing, why not get in touch with them and form virtual friendships? In a ‘real’ world that I find increasingly alienating, it’s good to know you can form, develop and ‘exist’ in communities of a virtual nature – and make friends without ever meeting them.
I know that some people are put off by reviews when they think the reader knows the writer – I understand that sycophancy isn’t the best recommendation for whether a work is good or not. But then Amazon reviews are all about ‘product’ anyway, aren’t they? For me, a review is a recommendation, a personal opinion and one that should be genuinely given. If I don’t like something I won’t review it. But when I’ve read a book of the year (which I only discovered by chance when idly scrolling through Facebook one day!) I don’t see any reason why the fact that I virtually ‘know’ the writer should mean my review has less impact. It’s a great book in my opinion. And hopefully I’ve managed to interest you enough to pick up a copy. I’m not on commission. I have no investment. I’m not in a quid pro quo deal. I just think it’s a great book, right!