“But the brain is a maze, made up of so many parts, so much that is mysterious.”
Icelandic author Olaf Olafsson’s novel, One Station Away arrived at the end of an excellent reading year, and although the competition is tough, this incredibly rich, complex novel easily makes my best-of-year-list. This is the story of a British neurologist, a transplant to New York, whose complex relationships with the women in his life challenge his notions of perception and delusion.
Neurologist Magnus Colin Conyngham works in Cold Harbor Connecticut, part of a team of doctors researching brain activity on patients in a vegetative state being kept alive on ventilators. The American team shares research with similar teams in Cambridge and France, and the three teams follow the same procedure: patients are placed in MRI scanners and asked to imagine playing tennis and then walking through their homes. Each of these mental activities light up different areas of the brain, so, in theory, doctors can communicate with vegetative, yet conscious, patients and with some simple training patients can give answers to yes/no questions.
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When the novel opens, Magnus is finding it hard to concentrate on his research which hasn’t been that successful, and his inability to concentrate can be explained by the sudden death of his Argentinean lover, dancer Malena, a warm and yet strangely remote woman. Magnus is sliding into an abyss when two things happen: his father, Vincent, asks Magnus to return to England for his mother’s 70th birthday, and a new patient arrives: a young, unidentified woman with significant head injuries who was left abandoned at the site of a horrendous motorcycle accident.
Magnus returns home reluctantly, and we gradually learn about his relationship with his parents. His mother Margaret, is a pianist, who, according to herself, and her devoted, single-minded husband, has been slighted and overlooked in her career. Magnus, who was the unwanted child of a neurotic, self-focused woman (according to his mother, he’s partly to blame for her failed career) has moved on from his parents and their pathological scene building of the thwarted monumental musical talent, but still, he finds it trying to be in their toxic, delusional company. He worries that he has inherited his mother’s worse traits.
But the fact was, my mother had never fulfilled her potential, or rather, she had never received the recognition which she and Vincent felt she deserved. Many things, and people, were to blame, most notably the cliques controlling the world of classical music behind the scenes, who had systematically prevented her from enjoying the acclaim she was due. It was they who kept her from giving recitals in the most prestigious concert halls, they who wrote disparaging reviews about her in newspapers and magazines, although without being too harsh, for that might arouse suspicion, they who awarded grants to other pianists, not half as good as she, they who took every opportunity to push her side, knowing that she was indomitable and served no one but art, no matter who they were, what position they held or what the consequences might be.
Magnus’s co-worker, Simone, who’s secretly in love with Magnus, has covered for him in the past, but now she’s very concerned about his behaviour. Magnus’s new patient sparks new life into this doctor who is beginning to question whether or not his research has any purpose, and soon he’s spending hours alone with this mystery “Jane Doe.”
I sensed it the moment I saw her face. This wasn’t a suspicion or a hunch–it was an absolute certainty. The woman was conscious: she could hear me walking toward the bed, she could feel my presence. I was expecting her to open her eyes at any moment and speak to me. I imagined her voice echoing in my head, her accent when she asked where she was. I even saw her raise her hand and brush away the lock of hair that had fallen across her brow, before turning to me and smiling.
One Station Away focuses on perceptions and delusions. Events occur which cause Magnus to question everything he thought was true. Is his mother extremely talented? Is she the victim of a thwarted career as she’s argued for decades? And if that’s true, shouldn’t she be treated with more compassion? Sometimes we manage to block out what is right under our noses, but, as the novel argues, we can also delude ourselves into believing what we want. MRIs reveal brain activity but how does that compare to the depths and intricacies of motivation? Olaf Olafsson explores this brilliantly in this incredible novel through Magnus’s relationship with the four women in his life: Malena, his patient, his mother, and Simone. I cannot praise this book highly enough.