Sunday, January 30, 2011

"The Alchemy of Chance"

Do you believe in serendipity?  If so, Peter Brooks’ fine first novel, The Alchemy of Chance is for you.  In fact, what better term than “the alchemy of chance” might be used to describe the principle of serendipity?  We’re struck by the magic of coincidence, the happenstance that makes us say, “there is some meaning, some force behind these events.”

Mr Brooks’ novel, the initial offering by Tangerine Tree Press, follows the paths of several young people in both France & England during the spring & summer of 1977.  They are all seekers: looking for love, family, belonging.  The narrative presents a complex weave, as the tales of these seemingly independent quests twine together to form a pattern.

At the center of this pattern, we find the story of Aurélie, a young French woman who has suffered from blindness since being in a car accident that claimed the life of her mother.  The doctors can find no cause, yet Aurélie’s world has become a blur of indistinct light.  On the other hand, her other senses have become heightened—the world of sound, smell, taste & touch are accentuated to Aurélie, as well as to us thru Mr Brooks’ considerable powers of description.  We don’t only see the landscapes of her travels: we hear them, we smell them & taste them.  Taste indeed: in fact, among its many virtues, The Alchemy of Chance is a foodie’s delight, filled with vivid descriptions of wonderful meals (I caution against reading this while hungry!), culminating in an improvised feast in a British shore town. 

Aurélie is able to adapt—adaptation being an undercurrent thru the novel, particularly in the form of improvisation, whether that involves music, cooking or solving clues to a real-life puzzle.  She develops her independence, relying both on her intact senses & her formidable memory, & is able to move around with a great deal of independence—so much so in fact, that she decides to take a journey by herself into the south of France to re-connect with friends & family & places she knew in her youth. 

At the same time, Dafydd a Welch filmmaker is traveling to the same region in search of his brother Sean, who has gone missing in France for 10 years—estranged from the family, Sean has left his trail only thru a series of enigmatic postcards, which Dafydd must try to piece into coherency—make into a map, as it were, as maps are an important motif in the novel—Aurélie is fascinated by maps & one of her prized possessions is a map of the London Underground.  Early in the novel, her father Didier converts this into a tactile map for her by inserting a push pin in each station; this action is duplicated—or twinned—later in the novel when Dafydd, who now has Aurélie as a companion & blind navigator on his search for Sean, constructs a map for her with an elaborate series of pins & wires. 

But maps, as Aurélie knows, aren’t the only guides we have in this world.  She is a gifted astrologer & has both Braille astrology books &, again with the help of her father, various tactile devices that make it possible for her to do sightless readings.  She uses this skill to aid Dafydd in his quest for Sean—despite Dafydd’s skepticism.

But it should be noted that Aurélie’s astrology is not thoroughly deterministic—to call it this would be to impose an alien logic to it—a “male logic,” as she points out to Dafydd.  It’s instead a set of opportunities, like a map—or like music.  Again the notion of improvisation which, as musicians know, is a “tangible” instance of serendipity.  Aurélie is also a musician in fact—a cellist—& we see (or I should say, hear) her skills as an improviser in a memorable scene in which Aurélie sits in with a “jug-rock band” in a Breton bar:

Aurélie stood up and stepped forward, discarding the bow, which she thrust down her waistband, and the dark glasses, which she stuffed down her white Indian shirt inside her bra.  Her legs slightly apart, her knees slightly bent, a towering six-footer on the edge of the stage in a flowing white gypsy skirt, plucking a four-foot bright white cello strapped around her neck like a guitar, she led the band into a spine-tingling intermediate cadence, minor to major….She moved her left foot forward to tease up the pedals and slowed her playing right down, this time bending the notes like a jazz sax-player.  Long and high, they soared across the room above the audience’s heads, echoed round ceiling corners and wall joints, returning to pierce the backs of their necks and shiver their spines.  Then she made a quarter-turn in the direction of the bass-player, with a silent invitation to fill some empty spaces.

I quoted this at length not only because I believe it’s a fine example of Mr Brooks’ descriptive abilities, but also because it shows his belief in the power of transformation; not only does Aurélie’s improvisation transform the audience, it transforms her & the very space they all inhabit.  But—& this is a crucial point in the novel—this transformation isn’t effected by Aurélie alone, but by her working in concert with the other band members.  In the same way, the disparate lives come together in the narrative as a whole with transformative power.

The Alchemy of Chance is vivid—although I’ve never visited the places it describes, I feel as tho I can see them in my mind’s eye as I travel thru its pages.  Its characters are vivid as well—redolent with the mixture of hope & pain we associate with young people of a certain age—mid to late 20s, say, as they are poised between the vestiges of youth & full adulthood.  They know pain & loss—real pain & loss, whether it’s the loss of sight or a brother or mother or twin sister (the concept of twinning is crucial to the narrative)—but they also exist in a world that’s open to opportunities, whether for exploration in a geographical sense or an emotional one.

Mr Brooks’ first novel is a success—beyond his descriptive abilities, he is able to navigate a rather complex & multi-layered plot with aplomb.  His characters are “real”—we feel we know them, & I would say especially Aurélie, who makes the narrative sparkle whenever she enters.  This is a novel that will move you & delight you, & I most certainly recommend it wholeheartedly.

The novel is available directly from Tangerine Tree Press at this link; it may also be purchased thru Amazon here or Amazon UK here.

Finally, thanks to Sheila Graham-Smith of Tangerine Tree Press for giving me the opportunity to explore The Alchemy of Chance.


  1. Hi John. Thank you so much for your wonderful review of 'The Alchemy of Chance.' It's difficult to do justice to a novel, give a real sense of it, in a review but you've certainly managed it here.

  2. Hi Sheila: So glad you liked it--was very happy to do this.

  3. Every now and then (if you’re lucky) a reader / commentator comes along who not only sees and describes what you have written, but brings their own special take on it to the table. In doing this, in creating alternative reverberations, they add to the stock of perceptions available to other readers. It’s a wondrous but elusive skill. Editor-publisher Sheila managed it, as did faraway co-writer friend, Glenn Hayes.

    Now I’m confronted with another new light on aspects of the book. I worked all along with master plans, but I am humbled by your introduction of fresh notions of adaptability and the power of transformation, in particular the reference to the cello scene, not least because you are a musician and I am not. My enquiries must have been subliminal. Thank you, John, for holding up a mirror.

  4. Fabulously eloquent and insightful review. Alchemy was one of the first books I read on Authonomy and Aurelie remains a poignantly vivid and compelling character.

  5. Hi Pete & Glenn

    Pete: I'm glad you liked the review. There are any number of themes within the book that to which one could devote a review of this length (at least)--for instance, twinning is obvious major, & I gave it short shrift here. I wondered if you played music or not--considering you're not a musician, I'd have to congratulate you even more on the musical scenes--well done! & thanks for following the blog.

    Glenn: Yes, I'm in complete agreement about Aurelie--a truly fascinating & fully realized character. Thanks for stopping by, & for following Robert Frost's Banjo!

  6. It sounds like an exciting read. 1977 was one of the key years in that spasmodic ratchetting forward of culture, popular and mainstream, that sometimes occurs. And what a wonderful description of live music - full of the spirit of punk that was infecting the moribund scene at the time.

  7. A really perceptive and interesting Review. The Alchemy of chance was one of my favourite books on Authonomy. and still is.

  8. Hi Dick & Jules

    Dick: I think you might like this novel quite well--yes, Mr Brooks' descriptions of music are always intriguing (Aurelie plays the cello in a few other scenes), & he has a real knack for describing process in general.

    Jules: So glad you like the review--thanks.

  9. This definitely sounds like a book I would really enjoy. (Have to check the finances and see if I can manage it.)
    I just finished a book that splendidly touches on that ability of a musician-character to transform himself and his immediate world when he plays (even though he can be a really cruel human being, he can mesmerize an audience with his fiddle).

    I loved that book and it sounds like I need to give Brooks's book a go as well.

    Thanks for an expert review, John. Thanks also to Sheila Graham-Smith for passing it on to you.


  10. Hi Kat: You would enjoy it I think, & it would be worth it when it fits into your book budget. I also believe Tangerine Tree Press is most deserving of support. Thanks!

  11. Thanks for the review, it sounds like a novel I'd be interested in (and the excerpt you provide promises good writing!)

  12. Hi HKatz: Glad you liked the review! Yes, a very good & absorbing read!


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