I had been looking out for Richard T. Kelly's new novel after being mightily impressed with his first, Crusaders, which was published several years ago.
The Possessions of Doctor Forrest is a very different piece of fiction, but no less impressive. Where Crusaders painted a broad canvas of modern life in North-East England in all its variety (social, political, religious), Kelly's new work is a much more concentrated piece - a dazzling, dark jewel of a novel.
Though Kelly is a devilishly good plotter, no novel can survive without a strong cast. The genius of The Possessions lies partly in Kelly's capacity to create complex, rounded characters: men and women with whom the reader engages closely, wants to understand, and cares about. These are not cyphers, placed on the page simply to advance the novel's scintillating plot, but living people, with all the anxieties, ambitions, doubts and contradictions that lie at the heart of the human experience. They agonise over their careers, worry about their marriages, fret about their fading youth, wonder where their aspirations have led them, and ponder their legacy in the world. They can be sensitive and heartless, cruel and compassionate, caring and brutal. They feel real.
And into this rich contemporary tapestry are woven older, darker strands - Gothic, certainly, but in many ways timeless. Though other readers have rightly cited the novel's Faustian theme, and its embracing of Gothic figures like Frankenstein, Dracula, and Jekyll and Hyde, the story goes right back to the first, mythic act of sin, when man surrendered to temptation, and lost his innocence forever.
So Kelly's is an ambitious task, to imbue his very twenty-first century landscape - one of plastic surgery, celebrity artists, power couples, psychotherapy - with a series of more timeless, darker and profounder themes.
In this I think he succeeds brilliantly. He does so through the slow but relentless unravelling of tightly-knit, seemingly coherent lives; the mounting sense of confusion, disbelief, and then sheer terror that overtakes the main protagonists; and the gradually-dawning sensation for us, the book's readers, that truly diabolical forces are at work. Kelly handles this entire demonic process with tremendous energy and guile, bringing all the novel's strands together with great skill in its final, confessional, section.
I enjoyed this book enormously, and warmly recommend it.