The Mathematics of Love
by Emma Darwin

Headline Review, 2007. ISBN 978-0-755-33044-5.
Reviewed by Edith O'Nuallain
Posted on 07/09/2013
Review of the Month, July 2013

Fiction: Historical

The Mathematics of Love by Emma Darwin is an enthralling tale of passionate love set in the aftermath of two turbulent wars in two different centuries, a story whose underlying theme encompasses the illusive and chimerical nature of vision, examining through its many portholes what it might mean to perceive, both what is real and insubstantial. Darwin attempts to achieve precisely what she quotes on the frontispiece of her novel: "to make solid the unreachable ghost which fades as soon as seen, without leaving a shadow in the looking-glass, a shiver in the water of the pool?" —Nadar: Quand j'etais photographe, 1899

Reading Emma Darwin's novel, we are constantly exposed to underlying intimations of something else going on, though to pinpoint it would be impossible. But like any superb mystery, once we reach the last sentence, everything becomes clear and we wonder how it was we never knew.

Right up to the final pages there is no way of knowing whether this story will end well, or—otherwise. In this it ranks with the best of literary endeavours, a novel whose ending is absolutely perfect. It is not often when a story causes my heart to tremble. Does my praise read like hyperbole? I hope not.

But in case you think I am lavishing too high a praise on this debut novel, let me point out that the writer in question has gone on to produce another novel, yet another historical, while at the same time teaching in a creative writing programme herself, as well as writing a highly recommended blog. Darwin's illustrious beginning has stood the test of time, her sparkling debut followed by equally noteworthy offerings.

Darwin's novel is quite different in tone and structure from other historicals which I have enjoyed. Though this is a story which moves backward and forward between two different time periods, the reader is never quite prepared for any coming change in setting. Instead the author seems to delight in making full use of the element of surprise, throwing her reader suddenly from the early 19th century straight into the mid-20th century, leaving the reader somewhat bemused and disorientated, with a strong sense of having being cast out, wondering why here, why now. The switch is abrupt and occurs without warning. The experience for this reader at least, was often one of shock. The first time it happened I floundered, uncertain and unable to make sense of the words I was reading. It was only then that I realised I was reading a novel set in different time periods. But it wasn't long before I began to discern that there was a kind of concurrence running between the two eras, with hints from one reflecting upon the other, though again, it would most likely be some time later before suggestions and intimations became clearer.

Emma Darwin is a master storyteller, a weaver of words capturing nuanced portrayals of unpredictable emotions with a skill equal to any poet worth her weight in images. For language is her gold, and Darwin has a firm grasp of its worth and power. It is precisely in this ability of hers where she wields her magic through the entire novel, gradually bringing her tale to a crescendo in the final pages. In many ways, her novel reminds me of one of Charlotte Bronte's lesser known novels, Villette, a tale I have always felt compelled to compare to an opera of tragic proportions. I will not divulge here how Emma ends her story, but I will say this that not all stories end in happy ever after, nor indeed do all literary novels require tragedy. But to understand what I mean you will have to read this novel for yourself.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Emma Darwin is a novelist, short story writer and creative writing tutor living in London. The Mathematics of Love was her debut novel, and both short- and long-listed in a number of literary awards. Visit her website & her blog.

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