- Publish Date
- Thursday, 10 March 2016, 4:58PM
- By Stephanie Jones
Ever hear of gliomatosis cerebri? For the ontologically inclined, the ‘oma’ will be a giveaway: it’s an extremely rare and always fatal form of cancer with which a 22-year-old novelist, Bibi Blair, is diagnosed in Dean Koontz’s electric thriller Ashley Bell. The disease involves an important discordance, in that it may be asymptomatic even when very advanced. A comparable duality might also be observed in the novel, which blends the supernatural into Bibi’s search for the mysterious Ashley Bell, whose rescue by Bibi promises to save them both.
The novel’s success rests almost entirely with its tenacious heroine, who is also smart, compassionate and self-aware. Driven but not self-defeatingly obstinate, Bibi is the only daughter of parents who eased their way from youthful SoCal surf culture to comfortable, middle-class mid-life, and engaged to Paxton Thorpe, a “beautiful man in every way” who is uncontactable through most of the novel’s crises because his Navy SEAL duties have him on blackout somewhere in the Middle East.
Others’ misconceptions about her, based on her name, have led Bibi to cultivate an astuteness in conversation and a keen sense of observation. She most profoundly defies expectations when her diagnostic death sentence is abruptly commuted. The day after she is given the bad news, a repeat of the tests reveals her to be free of cancer. The only significant event in the interim was a visit to her bedside by a man with a golden retriever, a pairing that, upon investigation by the hospital’s suspicious security chief, is found to have eluded much of the complex’s CCTV monitoring.
There is no point at which Koontz’s tale can be said to be anchored firmly to the terra firma of the known world, and thorough enjoyment will require the reader to suspend disbelief and accept, among other events, the warning of a diviner named Calida Butterfly that the ‘Wrong People’ are after Bibi; the pursuit of Bibi by one such person, a man who re-named himself Birkenau Terezin and who does not evince, in speech, moniker or past behaviour, a love of humanity; and the existence of an unseen woman named Ashley Bell, whose life is in Bibi’s hands.
“Fiction is a dangerous art”, as Terezin warns Bibi, and as the pair becomes more enmeshed in the predator-prey dynamic, so Koontz deepens his theme, insisting that “all of a writer’s creations are but a ghost of the Truth”. In Ashley Bell, handwriting vanishes from a page and a hospital cop quotes great American writers. This confrontation with invention is one experienced by every writer and reader, even if the fourth wall, for obvious reasons, is rarely broken – and Koontz’s reminder that “fiction could be a search engine” to find elusive truths does not land with the same devastating force as the conclusion of Atonement, where Ian McEwan makes a similar point.
Ashley Bell is neither as mind-bending as Paul Cleave’s Trust No One nor as utterly enamoured of the rabbit hole as Stephen King’s 11.22.63, but it invites the same intellectual commitment. This is not to call it unwieldly or unreadable – on the contrary, all 560 pages go by in a flash – but it’s not a story best consumed in bite-sized pieces. The narrative thread is taut and direct, yet demands full attention.
It is oddly lacking in suspense, for it never seems possible, after her first impossible liberation, that Bibi could really lose her life. Rather, the pleasures of Ashley Bell are to be found in the fearless intrepidity of its protagonist and the many reminders that this captivating story, and so many others, are conjured purely for our delectation.
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