Broks is a clinical neuropsychologist with leanings towards philosophy, who has written an extended meditation on the nature of the self. Although he has rightly been praised for his originality, this is not to say he is breaking entirely new ground, for his book belongs to the class of literature pioneered by Oliver Sacks; and indeed Broks says that, while writing, he avoided reading Sacks to prevent being unduly influenced. Like Sacks, he gives us imaginative, sometimes almost poetic, descriptions of his clinical experiences, and his case histories are narrated in a way that reveals his emotional involvement with his patients.
Broks uses a variety of literary forms to convey his ideas, including surreal short stories, in one of which, for example, a man becomes transparent, while in another, Broks himself is subjected to a kind of inquisition by nameless interrogators. There are literary echoes here of Borges and Kafka. It is almost a relief to come across passages where Broks seems to speak to you straightforwardly, in his own voice, without literary devices interposed. In these places he reflects on the relation between brain and mind.
Broks has a distinctive tone of voice: sensitive, sometimes humorous, sometimes elegiac. His touch is indeed so delicate and allusive that at times it is difficult to know quite how to read him. His final piece, Gulls, movingly describes how he and his wife reacted to her breast cancer, its diagnosis and treatment. It is implied that she dies, and this is echoed in a coda with lines from Christina Rossetti's poem 'Remember' that also give the book its title. But nothing is spelled out explicitly, and the piece manages to be simultaneously deeply personal yet reticent—something I find characteristic of the book as a whole.
A strange book, utterly individual, and I suspect not easily forgotten once read.
18 July 2004
%T Into The Silent Land
%A Paul Broks
%I Atlantic Books
%G ISBN 1-84354-034-7
%P 246 pp
%K psychology, philosophy
%O paperback edition