Many of us can identify with the sense of having lost our purpose in life, of the encroaching of an ever-more demanding world, of the exhausting cycle of work-life-work. Many of us may also have experienced the debilitating symptoms of depression, the gathering grey-black that will not relent no matter what the distraction. Suzannah Grant, a brilliant New York academic specialising in linguistics, is struggling with a darkness that she cannot overcome. We first meet her through the eyes of her old and closest friend Christian, who is poring over the remains of her life – a few letters, some incidental personal possessions. Some mysterious event has befallen Suzannah and Christian cannot quite believe she is dead.
And then we flash back and meet Suzannah, and join her journey to the distant heartland of southern Africa, to a land, people, culture and language only once before charted by a Victorian explorer – a language which hints at the mysterious Experience Cascade. Driven on by her desire to find refuge from herself and her ever darkening existence, Suzannah submerges herself in first research and then the journey to follow in the explorer’s footsteps, abandoning little by little everything familiar in pursuit of the truth. What is the Cascade? And what can be learned about it?
What Suzannah discovers is that there is a difference between learning about the Cascade and learning from it. And it is this truth she seeks which makes the novel so interesting. Jessup has not only imagined a world for us of enormous credibility – a ‘lost’ tribe of people within a world that has been Google-mapped out of obscurity – but one which has a very strong spiritual vision. Carefully translating the language of the lost culture for her, Suzannah’s local guide Muhaybee alludes to our psychological frailties as individuals, mapping them as hills, rivers and the landscape through which they journey together, as Suzannah faces increasing physical, emotional and psychological challenges. Jessup shows us how those frailties have weakened our spirituality – regardless of our faith or religion – and how much is lost to them.
This is a very long novel, and in conventional narrative terms it does not really adopt a page-turning pace until about half way through. The multiple points of view and voices – Suzannah and Christian in third and first person, letters, journals and so on – help somewhat to keep the first part moving, but the authenticity of the detail of Suzannah’s expertise in linguistics, and to a lesser extent Christian’s professional knowledge of AI, are – in this reviewer’s opinion – at times completely overwhelming of the storyline and slow the pace too much. The writing is elegant, evocative and strongly visual, but because we spend so much time inside Suzannah’s head, at times again the long descriptive tracts can slow the pace.
Nonetheless, this is an inspiring, thought-provoking journey of a novel, and worth the investment of time and consideration by any reader interested in spiritual themes.