The Horizontal Instrument
by Christopher Wilkins
Published by Doubleday
198 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Described on the cover as "a novel of love, memory and the quest to measure time," this slender first book by British author Christopher Wilkins seems to suffer from a form of split personality. Small as it is, The Horizontal Instrument is really two books in one: a philosophical treatise on the paradox of time interwoven with a tragic story of a marriage cut short by the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. In the end, the two streams of story don't combine well enough to be deeply satisfying, sometimes even repelling each other like oil and water. But Wilkins is a skilled enough writer to keep his readers on the hook even with a flawed and not-always-plausible premise.
Robert Garrett is a young, brilliant but terminally serious mathematical prodigy at Cambridge University, living in splendid isolation in a world of pure intellect and order. He does not seem to be particularly aware of how sterile his existence is until he meets Elizabeth, a charming divorced older woman who works at a cosmetics counter. The two strike up an unlikely friendship which develops into an even more unlikely romance.
When his father is suddenly killed in a plane crash, a curiously unmoved Robert abandons his studies to take up the family business of watchmaking. In spite of a 16-year age gap, Elizabeth and Robert marry, deeply in love but still knowing very little about each other. It's a strange pairing which soon takes a turn for the stranger.
At first it takes the form of small memory lapses which are easy to attribute to a glass of wine too many. But over time it becomes evident that something is happening to Elizabeth's mind, something terrible and irreversible. When a physician diagnoses dementia, the outlook is completely bleak: "She will become progressively more confused... and less able to do things for herself, even ordinary things like dressing and cooking. In the final stages she will be unable to speak, move, eat or drink. You will not be sure whether she can understand or even hear what you say to her." At the time of the diagnosis, Elizabeth is 36 years old.
If this bizarre situation strains credibility, the interspersed chapters on the craft of watchmaking can be even harder to digest. Though it is easy to believe that an intellectual like Robert might need to take refuge in his intricate, orderly work to survive the chaos at home, his dissertations on timekeeping and the slippery nature of time itself are curiously dry and devoid of emotion.
This points to a central problem with the novel. We are never allowed to know Elizabeth's character deeply before she begins to decline into dementia. Perhaps this was done deliberately; after all, Robert never really knew the woman he married. But the watchmaking passages build a frustrating wall between the reader and Robert as well. This makes it hard to engage deeply with either of them as they grapple with the horror of Elizabeth's relentless deterioration. The result is a strange detachment even in stark passages like this one:
Eleven days after that, I awoke with a start in raven darkness, rain scuttling against the bedroom window and Elizabeth gone from the bed. Downstairs the front door was wide open, the hall floor spattered with wet leaves lashed in by the wind. I took the car and drove slowly towards the village on full beam, but there was no trace of her. I drove back to the house and continued on past the gates, up the lane towards the spinney, but she was not there either. Back home, I called the local police, who told me they had found a woman walking through the village in wet clothes shortly after midnight and when they had taken her to the station house she had been unable to tell them her name or where she lived. They had assumed her to be delirious and had taken her to the cottage hospital.
Some much-needed comic relief from this grimness is provided by Charlotte and Malcolm, an (again) unlikely couple who seem to be Elizabeth and Robert's only friends. Robert rather contemptuously describes Charlotte as "a giant slab of a woman with tumbling coils of liquorice-black hair, a jutting chin and massive feet, which she habitually forced into flamboyant red patent-leather stilettos, like a female impersonator." Charlotte may be loud and ungainly, but she shows some touching loyalty, doggedly sticking by Elizabeth even after she stabs Charlotte in the neck with sewing scissors.
As might be expected in a novel about time, The Horizontal Instrument does not follow a chronological timeline but looks backward from the vantage point of a Robert who has already lost Elizabeth and is attempting to cope with his grief by building the perfect timepiece in her memory. Here we learn more about the intricacies of watchmaking than we perhaps needed to know. The seams of Wilkins' intensive research stick out here and there as he throws in arcane terms like almucantar and incunabula. To lurch from these rather dry passages back to the chaos of Elizabeth's story is disconcerting, especially in the knowledge that things can only get worse: "She began to smell bad, a sour odor of decay and putrefaction which no amount of my bathing her would overcome. It was like having to tend an exhumed cadaver."
There is no doubt that Wilkins can write well and his strange dual premise might have worked better if only Robert and Elizabeth had been allowed to come to life in three dimensions. The writer has some intriguing things to say about time and our attempts to measure it, such as the paradox of a "present moment":
But are we correct in so casually referring to this as the present? By the time we notice something in the landscape -- a cow, say -- the moment has passed.
Science fiction writers have already thoroughly explored this slippery subject, and with a great deal more color and imagination. That said, there is something quite compelling about Wilkins' style, demonstrated by this shockingly stark scene in the hospital:
I squatted down in front of her and looked into her eyes, clear and inanimate as glass marbles, bright, forget-me blue. I took her pale, blank face gently between my hands and smiled with as much reassurance as I could simulate. Startlingly, her eyes came into focus and she smiled back.
Vivid writing like this provides enough of a hook to keep us reading, but it isn't enough to sustain a truly engaging novel. It would be interesting to see what a writer with Wilkins' potential strength could do with a more plausible story line and more believable characters. He could have made us weep at Elizabeth's plight. Instead, like poor Robert, we are almost glad when her ordeal is all over. All that remains after her death is the incessant, sterile ticking of an eerily perfect timepiece -- which is no substitute for the beating of a human heart. | April 2000
Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 100 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has just finished her first novel, A Singing Tree.