Christopher Priest is an author who, like J G Ballard, tends to polarise opinion in his readership, albeit for different reasons. Ballard is (unjustly) accused of static, banal plot; Priest, on the other hand is considered ethereal, dream-like, and to have a tendancy to internalise and shroud his stories in mystery and symbolism so subtle as to make the reader feel stupid for missing the plot halfway through. Nevertheless, Ballard and Priest are united in the opinions of them as "important" writers - regardless of whether you like them, you are obliged to read at least a couple of their novels to round out your literary experience.
This book is probably a good starting point for the reader to get into Priest and decide whether they want to persevere with him. The premise is standard for the average middle-class, mid-twenties contemporary novel: our hero gives us a retrospective on his life to date which includes redundancy, a very messy relationship with a gorgeous, animated and probably depressive woman, and the inevitable breakup and break-down.
However, this isn't just a contempory novel, it's also magical realism - and very fine it is too. Seeking meaning for his life, our hero begins writing an autobiography in a cottage owned by his uncle in order to collate his existence. As he does so, he invents new names for familiar places and people. Steadily he becomes fixated and engrossed with the alternate world he has created, the plot of which lies around the Dream Archipelago (of which Priest has written a collection of short stories under the same title) and the man's imaginary voyage to an island where he is to be given the secret of immortality at the expense of his memory. Predictably his fantasy life intrudes on his reality (or vice versa) to the point where he discusses his real-world relationship with his fantasy lover, who is essentially and idealised form of his lover.
Characters are solid; the retrospective viewpoint means that character progression is actually just deeper analysis and can be disjointed, but the book does not suffer. Readers may think that the ending is irritating in its open-endedness; however, I felt that, paradoxically, Priest acheives a closure not in spite of it, but because of it. In some ways this summarises him perfectly, and should give the reader some idea of whether or not they are going to enjoy this book.
Priest has been compared to John Wyndham and H G Wells in his science fiction - the latter probably because of his work The Space Machine. His John Wyndham character he carries into his contempory works, to produce a dreamlike, ominous atmosphere that is quintessentially English. John Fowles is also very complimentary of him, which should also suggest his style. His biggest foible is perhaps his predeliction for pretentious names such as The Affirmation, The Prestige, The Galmour, The Extremes - but that hasn't spoiled my enjoyment yet.
Reviewer's note: my own copy of this book has pages 155 to 170 missing. At first I wondered if it was deliberate because it makes the narrative a little more scattered. I've since read the complete version and the bits I missed fill in the plot nicely, but I still managed to follow the damaged version - to be honest, it doesn't change the overall effect much :)