Recursion by Blake Crouch

Reviewed by Gerard Healy

An interesting story of memory manipulation that had me engaged initially but became more confusing as the characters time-travelled back and forth down various memory trails. Reading it was like a hike in the woods that gradually lead into a maze of blind alleys.

The story centres on two main characters – brilliant neuroscientist Helena Smith and New York detective Barry Sutton.  

We meet Sutton when he is called to a skyscraper where a woman is threatening to commit suicide. She tells a very unusual story of having vivid recollections of an alternative life she thinks she’s lived. The pain of what she is missing is apparent when she tells Sutton: ‘My son has been erased’ (8).

The phenomenon she described is called False Memory Syndrome and everyone is totally baffled by it. Sutton decides to follow up on the leads the woman has given him. He eventually winds up at a place called the Hotel Memory where a different kind of journey awaits.

Some years before these events and on the other side of the country, Smith’s mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s. This provides her daughter’s motivation to investigate memory loss and whether it can be rebuilt/repaired somehow. Her research has hit a wall when she is thrown a financial lifeline by reclusive billionaire Marcus Slade. At first, Helena thinks that Slade’s goals match hers but over time her doubts grow.

The setting for Smith’s and Slade’s research project is straight out of a Bond movie: a disused oil platform far out in the Pacific Ocean where there are no nosey neighbours to worry about. Tight security and restricted access also feature heavily.

This theme of remote out-of-the-way locations is copied when Sutton and Smith get together in their own efforts to halt the devastating consequences of this memory manipulation. Over several time-lines, they build home/lab complexes in the Midwest desert, a remote part of Scotland and freezing Antarctica among others. The action in each setting replicates itself on a loop of build, research and try again.

I have reservations about why the writer had them do this five or six times; if it was to build suspense then it didn’t work for me. Another issue is, with only one exception, how come no-one in authority becomes curious about these advanced research facilities in remote places?  Wouldn’t they get wind of such unusual activity and investigate? What about the media?

Character development is problematic because many have multiple ‘lives’ and each is often different from the previous one. Two examples – at first Barry Sutton is a detective coping with the loss of his teenage daughter and marriage breakdown to Julia, then later on he becomes a highly skilled research assistant and husband to Helena. Billionaire Marcus Slade is a drug-dependent research assistant in another existence. Perhaps reliving part of your life over and over would bring about some peculiar tweaks to your basic personality and skill-sets.

One strength of the writing is the sense of regret and loss conveyed in some scenes. Barry goes back in time to the last moments he shared with his daughter, unaware of what was about to befall her. A sliding doors moment we can relate to. Another good example is the scene of the woman threatening suicide; her desperation seems real as is the detective’s dilemma of how to react.

Also, some of the scientific concepts that are touched on are indeed intriguing. The brain’s neural activity at death, the role of smell and touch in memory recall, the idea of deja vu and the connection between our shared memories are some of these.

While the possibility of altering memories is a good idea, the story’s premise of characters going back to an earlier life to change outcomes has a major problem. If you’re strapped into a chair or float tank in New York in 2019, how can you walk around in 2008 with the knowledge gained in the meantime? Can knowledge be sent back through space/time?

I would recommend this novel to those with an interest in time-travel stories set against a contemporary background.

Barry Crouch is a bestselling novelist and screenwriter who lives in Colorado. His novels include ‘Dark Matter’ a New York Times bestseller and the ‘Wayward Pines’ trilogy. Netflix has purchased the rights to ‘Recursion’.

 Recursion

(2019)

by Blake Crouch

Macmillan

ISBN: 978 1 5098 6666 3

336 pp; $29.99

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