THE ECHO CHAMBER
HAMISH HAMILTON, £18.99 348PP ISBN 978-0241143001
Gullane resident Evie types her memoirs in an attic. In her fifties, Evie’s ‘power of listening’ has been eroded by tinnitus. She’s a very good listener. Her talent is not, as that description would imply, empathetic. It’s more literal. Her powers of hearing are astounding. She could even hear in the womb and recounts what she remembers listening to, a hint that she may not be an entirely reliable narrator. So begins The Echo Chamber, an ambitious debut novel by Luke Williams.
Evie connects listening and memory, and writing her autobiography is a way of exploring both subjects. Her fixation with sound means she has taped recordings of those who influenced her. These, along with letters and diaries stored in that attic, act as a channel to the past.
Her story spans three continents, and it begins in 1946 in the then Nigerian capital of Lagos where her father works for the government. Evie is born two months after her due date. Her birth kills her mother and breaks her father. In his grief, he neglects her. So much so that Evie claims to be nameless until she is six when she has an unconventional christening.
While playing with a young Nigerian chum, Ade, Evie discovers a box of rubber stamps dumped in her garden. Delighted by the discovery, she prints the letters onto her arm. Pointing, Ade reads out the last two letters, E and V, which, she says, is how she acquired her name. Ade’s intervention made her feel loved, which Evie will have a long wait to experience again.
Nigeria’s declaration of its independence from the British Empire in 1960 does not bring peace to the country, Evie or her father. The duo return to Scotland but this has never been home for Evie nor is her father a Scot, as we shall learn. Evie suffers a few miserable years at a Scottish boarding school before someone encourages her to find out more about her father’s past.
That someone is flighty on-the-rebound starlet Damaris who Evie meets while working as an usher after leaving school. Demaris supplements her wages as an actress by standing still on Princess Street, pretending to be a statue for pennies. Falling for her, Evie declares her feelings by stationing herself on the pavement beside Demaris and copying her (non-)moves. It’s an unconventional approach but it works and soon the young women are lovers.
Unconventional approaches are not Evie’s solely. Williams himself tries an unusual tack. In his Acknowledgements, he admits two chapters called ‘Damaris’ Diary’ were penned not by him, but by Natasha Soobramanien, to whom this book is dedicated. This section charts the only love affair Evie will ever have. In urging her to make recordings, Demaris indulges Evie’s obsession with sound and helps her to confront the shadows cast by her family’s untold stories. Transcripts of these recordings tell us that Evie’s father was taken from Poland to Dundee by his Jewish migrant family in 1923 – and of how alienated he, like his daughter, had felt when he was stranded in Scotland.
The diary also catalogues the couple’s trip to America where Damaris is taking part in a touring show. Unfortunately, she is tiring of Evie and is more interested in casual hook-ups – with men – than her girlfriend’s sonic preoccupations and mood swings. After the inevitable parting, Evie will never again find anyone again to share her memories with. So her desire to re-live these is matched by her determination to record them for posterity. And The Echo Chamber is the finished product. Williams admits to being influenced by W.G. Sebald and the theme of looking back on a chequered life through props is something his novel shares with Austerlitz.
Williams dramatises the false dawn of Nigerian independence through the device of a harrowing letter from the grown-up Ade. And he is sensitive to the pains of those who feel rootless and different. He knows that Evie’s claim to hear more than others is not merely quirky; it’s a metaphor for the distance she feels from closest to her.
The Nigerian chapters mark the most successful part of the book: they are poignant, involving, and historically illuminating. The story, however, is not fully realised as Williams doesn’t explore the latter decades of Evie’s life. Scenes set in Edinburgh closer to our time, where Evie visits her maternal grandfather in an institution, lack the momentum and emotion of the African sections. Some of the details in the Scottish chapters that explore Evie’s family’s past feel tacked together; they’re more conceptual than organic and they lack the cohesion of earlier chapters. That said, The Echo Chamber serves notice of a new Scottish literary talent. Future novels are to be eagerly awaited upon, for Williams’s ambition is – how else to describe it? – sound.