Time is seriously out of joint in Christopher Priest’s The Gradual, though our protagonist has no idea until much later. Sandro grew up under the junta of Glaund. The regime taught him to keep his head down, ask now questions, and do what he was told. Because he’s what we would consider a classical musician, Sandro is mostly left to his own devices, even when he starts to receive attention in musical circles. His troubles really begin when Sandro is chosen to go on an orchestral tour of the mysterious Dream Archipelago. Sandro’s tour is set to last nine weeks; he returns home more than a year and a half later.
Sandro and the people of Glaund know a little bit about the Archipelago. The islands are officially neutral and refuse to help either Glaund or any other country at war. For some reason, there’s no map of all the islands in the Archipelago. And, for some reason, it seems like some band on a remote Archipelagan island is plagiarizing Sandro’s work. But no one talks about the strangest thing about the islands: time is fluid there. It’s only after Sandro and the rest of the tour group return home after their tour that he realizes that time has carried on in Glaund without him. With his wife gone, his parents dead, and bills piling up, Sandro has to start all over again—except this time Sandro has even less ambition than he did the first time he started out in music.
The Gradual is a very slow book in spite of all the jumps in time. The first third of the novel sets up Sandro as a character and his ascetic existence as an avant-garde composer. After his inadvertent Rip Van Winkle-ing, Sandro becomes even more passive, resentful, and indecisive. I might have tossed the book except that I really wanted to know what on earth was going on with time and the Archipelago. I got more interested in the novel after Sandro abruptly defects from Glaund, after being “asked” by the regime to write a nightmare symphony for the junta’s tenth anniversary. That said, hanging out with Sandro while he’s on the run was almost like going on a cruise with Hamlet and none of the clocks work.
The last chapters of The Gradual reveal why Sandro and we readers had to take the long way ’round the plot. We never do learn why time is so strange in his world, but Sandro does find a purpose at the very end. The conclusion was surprisingly satisfying after all of Sandro’s drifting through life and the often dry descriptions of his musical thinking. I suspect readers who like books about ideas and fantastical settings may enjoy The Gradual. It has plenty of both. Readers who prefer decisive, active protagonists and/or quick plots will probably be frustrated with it.