S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

S. is absolutely phenomenal.

Do you ever get the feeling there’s a perfect time for you to read a particular book? Something that might have been sat on the shelf for months or even years, waiting for just the right moment to beckon and ensare you? Because that’s exactly what happened to me with S..

I originally bought it back in 2014, probably after an evening of browsing for weird and creepy book recommendations. I categorise it thus because I recall buying it at the same time as House of Leaves, and eventually deciding to go for Mark Danielewski’s offering first. And clearly that was such a dense mindfuck of a book that S. ended up lingering on the shelf gathering dust these past three years. Then just over a week ago, I caught sight of it leaning precariously from the shelf, and felt that the right moment had arrived.

And what a moment.

Within a few hours of beginning, I was already seriously beginning to fear that I’d found my favourite read of the year. S. is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Inside the slipcase is a hardback book entitled Ship of Theseus, meticulously designed to look like a 1950s library book, complete with yellowing pages. The margins are absolutely covered with notes, revealing a whole other story-within-a-story (within a story!).

At surface level we have Ship of Theseus itself, about the titular S. – who emerges from the water one day with no memory of his past life, and is swept up into a political movement against a businessman named Vevoda with a newly discovered means of chemical warfare.

Beyond Ship of Theseus, we have a rich mystery surrounding its authorship. Penned by the enigmatic V. M. Straka, with translations and footnotes provided by the equally enigmatic F.M.X., we learn that there are many suspects for Straka’s true identity, and many people and organisations with vested interest in revealing the truth. Accompanied by a string of mysterious deaths, the Straka mystery is compelling and resonates deeply with the text of the novel itself.

Finally we have the story of Jen and Eric, two college students who begin passing the book back and forth, leaving their notes, theories and findings in the margins. It’s through their developing relationship that the mystery surrounding Straka is told, but we also come to know and care for them as people, particularly when their delving threatens to place them in peril.

Along with the authentic “aged” feel the book has, and the many underlinings, annotations and marginalia, S. is also packed with inserts which contribute greatly to the authentic feeling. From excerpts from the college newspaper, to postcards from Brazil, maps scrawled on napkins and a cipher-cracking code wheel, the pages are replete with signs of just how much love and care went into this book’s creation.

I’m certain that S. will bear repeat readings, and expect it will be a very different experience the second time through. If I fall for another book this hard this year, I’ll be extremely surprised.

[Read from 14-21 January 2017]

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