Do you remember, if you’re old enough, the beautiful painted illustrations on the covers of fantasy and science fantasy novels in the 1980s? Each would depict a scene capturing both a moment in the story and the essence of the whole setting. These pictures filled me with desire to imaginatively inhabit the worlds they evoked. Sometimes the text delivered on that; sometimes it didn’t. In a labyrinthine second-hand bookshop in Ryde on the Isle of Wight, the other day, I discovered W.A. Harbinson’s 1987 novel The Light of Eden. It has just such a cover. The prologue narrates the disappearance of Glastonbury in a pillar of darkness from the sky, to be replaced by a marshy wilderness where prehistoric animals are glimpsed. Chapter 1 shifts scene to southern Iraq and a similar phenomenon that sucks protagonist Frances Devereux into the distant past – into the original Eden, and then further back to the time of humankind’s evolution. The copy of the book was a bit battered, but, well, I had to have it.
It’s the sort of book that, if I’d read it before I wrote Deep Time, I would have regarded as one of my inspirations. I’d never heard of Harbinson before, but in The Light of Eden his imagination has travelled some parallel pathways to mine. Not merely the premise of a spacetime distortion that takes you into a prehistoric past with resonances of Eden; also the idea that travelling into that deep past can bring out one’s baser instincts – and a lust triangle of one woman and two men. There’s a lot of sex in Harbinson’s novel, even more than in Deep Time, but there’s also an extraordinary narrative stance which presents as sordid and depraved a range of activities that never stray, physically, beyond the wholesome scope of The Joy of Sex. One of the men is an (initially) virginal young Christian; and a survey of Harbinson’s oeuvre reveals a preoccupation with paranormal scenarios rooted in biblical mythology. At the same time, The Light of Eden is ultimately a redemptive story and hazards its own interpretation of the nature of God. My guess – the author is from Belfast – is that it gives expression to a wrestling with a conservative Christian heritage characterised by deep-seated shame about sex.
The book is written in a more ‘popular’, more lurid style than Deep Time, though it’s much better than the bland facile style of equivalent work today by the likes of Dan Brown. The quality of writing is variable, though, and there are passages where Harbinson should have been challenged by his editor. I found the first half of the novel quite gripping, but things become less involving after that, at times, when complex global developments are elided via infodumps of dialogue that have the tone of paranormal journalism. At the same time, I have tremendous admiration for the book’s imaginative ambition. Does the text deliver on the promise of that cover painting? To some degree, yes. But not quite enough to fully satisfy me. Those prehistoric animals glimpsed in the marshes – apart from a pterandon that repeatedly glides overhead, we’re never told what they are or what they look like.