In Ascension by Martin MacInnes*****

8 January 2024 | ,

Reading dates: 04 December 2023 – 07 January 2024

She was a shy, withdrawn child, who rarely spoke unprompted and who was so accustomed to positioning herself around a book – hands gripping it, eyes gazing at it, knees raised in support of it – that she seemed incomplete without one.

My recent two-year project of reading Lee Child’s Reacher novels has left me somewhat starved for fiction that is less formulaic, more ambitious and better written. Martin MacInnes’s In Ascension is all that and more and I thank Ian and Sally for their birthday gift (inscribed and signed too!).

Any sufficiently advanced technology will appear indistinguishable from magic.

I spent most of my reading time in awe of the scope of this novel and the elegance of the execution. Nothing is forced and whole there is a sense of rigour and investigation, there are also very sensitive, emotional parts. This novel is both and. It deals with all the grand narratives of our times: climate change, space exploration, microbiology and family dynamics. It sounds impossible to do, but MacInnes manages. Part of the success if the structure of the book, each distinct part with a gorgeous arc that seems unsurpassable, yet it is achieved again at the next fold.

So many times I had identified errors – in my work and in my relationships – stemming from the original mistake of too many assumptions, of predicting rather than perceiving the world and seeing something that wasn’t really there.

The only downsides of his writing are, for me, the character development and the ending but both are worthwhile compromises. It is not that the characters in In Ascension are not deep, it is just that they are not as alive as other aspects of the narrative … And as for the ending, well, fair play to him, as it is very hard to do. The open nature of the last section Oceana is not a cope out and acts as a mystery. It is not quite satisfactory, though, but could it ever have been? Why do I need satisfaction at the end of a book when the book itself has been more than satisfactory?

Something in the rendering of Jupiter looks too virtual, too predictable. It’s exactly like the images I’ve seen of it before. This is a senseless thing to say, of course, but I expected the gas giant to appear different when I saw it myself, so close. It looks too perfect, too controlled. It lacks independence, as if conforming to our expectations, which is ironically not what we expected at all. You’re in shock, Tyler says. We all are. It isn’t the camera, or the screen, K, it’s us. We don’t know how to see it.

I don’t understand why In Ascension did not go further on the Booker Prize road, even all the way to winning it. I cannot comprehend what more a novel might need. This one, apart from being well rounded, represents our times extremely well. For me, it fulfils the category for a 5 star: There is nothing I would do differently if I was writing and I would re-read it.

If we were blind to anything representing a new category, then our individual histories might have amounted to a series of glancing encounters with unspeakable wonders – as a general summation, it felt about right. Life as a repeated failure to apprehend something.

While I was reading In Ascension, on Boxing Day 2023, my grandmother died and we held the funeral two days later – Spain is efficient when it comes to that. Her death was very beautiful. At home, with family, at the age of 94 and with no visible illness or pain. It was sad, though, and I miss her (and will do even more and the time passes). Her life was well lived to the end and I wonder if this is a satisfactory end because, although I do feel sadness, the overarching sense is one of beauty and … satisfaction. Something made sense in her story and there was no more mystery than that which is unanswerable.

A family is a group of strangers with a destructive desire for common nostalgia.

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