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Kairos, Gwyneth Jones

July 20, 2011

Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
Review by Ian Sales

Kairos has long been a favourite novel of mine, and so I did not expect it to disappoint on a reread. If anything, I imagined I would get more from the book – it’s been over a decade since I read it last and I hope I’m a more discerning reader now than I was then. Which also means, I suppose, that I had higher expectations of this favourite novel than I do of other books I might reread…

And right from the first page, Kairos‘ prose proved as good as I remembered it. By the end of the first chapter, something else about the novel had also occurred to me – what had been near-future science fiction was now alternate history. Kairos was first published in 1988, and it posits a future extrapolated from Thatcher’s Britain. The ever-widening equity gap, the increasingly ham-fisted attempts to enforce law and order, the slow realisation that the decisions made by government were not for the benefit of the people it represented… It wasn’t hard to imagine a dystopic future back then. If anything, it seemed almost inevitable.

Jane “Otto” Murray is a lesbian ex-political activist, and the owner of a small secondhand book shop. One of her closest friends, James, a gay soap opera actor of Nigerian extraction, asks her to look after a small film container given to him by his sister. Both James’ sister and brother are involved with BREAKTHRU, a pharmaceutical company turned cult religion – there is, incidentally, no commentary here on cults or religions. BREAKTHRU have managed to obtain a sample of a drug, which they call Kairos. This drug allows users to directly affect the real world. There is mention of quantum theory, used to “scientifically explain” how the drug operates, but it is its effects not its mechanism which is important.

After dabbling with BREAKTHRU, Otto’s lover, Sandy Brize, leaves her. Shortly afterwards, Otto’s son, Candide, runs away. Someone has kidnapped his dog and demanded the film canister as ransom. But Candide runs to Sandy, taking the film canister with him, and enlists her help in rescuing the dog. Together, they head north, meet up with a posse of animal liberationists, and raid the BREAKTHRU laboratory where Candide believes the dog is being experimented upon. Throughout this period, the drug in the film canister has been affecting Sandy, who has in turn been affecting the real world…

Kairos is split into eight sections, labelled First Angel through to Seventh Angel, and a final section, ∞. Each of the chapters is titled. I’ve never really understood chapter titles, perhaps because authors use them in so many different ways – from hints to a chapter’s contents to in-jokes to literary allusions. I suspect it’s the latter in Kairos, although many are beyond me: e.g., ‘Umbriel’ is a character from Alexander Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock'; and ‘Abîmes des Oiseaux’, or ‘Abyss of Birds’, is a section from Quatuor pour la fin du temps, a piece of chamber music by Olivier Messiaen (I had to look both up, and I’m still none the wiser).

On rereading Kairos, I can understand why it became a favourite. I’ve admired Jones’ writing a great deal since first encountering it, and the prose in Kairos is as sharp and elegant and, on occasion as beautiful, as anything she has written:

The trees were larches. They had a manmade look, their slender girlish bodies laid out ready for processing while still upright. Their boughs swept down as smoothly as combed hair along the rows. Errant branches had been aborted when they collided with the pattern, the flowing locks concealed bruises. And yet the effect was extremely beautiful: red gold on red gold, falling in endless sheaves. (p 161)

But it’s not simply one word after another, put together in pleasing fashion. It has been said that Jones is a cold writer, though perhaps this sounds unfairly negative. To me, it’s more that her narratives give the impression of a vastly intelligent and dispassionate observer – as in this quintessentially Jonesian passage:

One cold spring day she was cooking skirlie pudding and cabbage while Candide and Vera played under the kitchen table. Sandy and Otto had hoped they would get used to having a dog around. They had not. There was something fundamentally repellent about the little terrier, with her slavish regard for beatings, her periods of abject sexuality; her constant amoral measuring of every comer – do I show my belly or do I bite? (p 41)

And yet her characters are alive, and not the affectless automatons you would expect of a dispassionate narrative voice. Indeed, it’s hard not to sympathise with her protagonists, despite the fact that, for me, there is little or no common ground. Further, Jones’ books have always given me the impression of continued existence, that on turning the last page, the world of the story carries on despite no longer being observed. The same is true of her characters.

Why Kairos a favourite more than any other Jones novel? It is very much a book of its time, fully grounded in the real world of its time of writing, as so many of my favourite novels are. It had relevance – and even now, reading it twenty-three years later, it recaptures that spirit, those feelings I experienced when reading it at its time of publication. Jones can be a prescient writer, but Kairos is no longer a book that looks forward – and that is part of its appeal. Its world has passed, its future exists only in some alternate timeline. But in 1988 it felt so very real, and reading Kairos in the twenty-first century only strengthens that sense.

A shorter version of this review originally appeared on It Doesn’t Have To Be Right…

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