How do we as individuals know if we’re functioning properly without somebody else to monitor us, evaluate us, even compare ourselves to? This is an underlying question throughout Liam Durcan’s latest book, The Measure of Darkness. Martin Fallon is recovering from a collision in which a snow plow pushed his parked car off of the road by accident. He suffers from brain damage, in which he completely ignores the left side of his sight, memory and even his body and its hygiene, leaving somebody else to have to shave the left side of his face.
Yet as far as he knows there’s nothing wrong with him. He has difficulty focusing on things but he’ll usually chalk it up to being tired. This doesn’t stop him from constantly wandering off to the right, a problem which he simply ignores. With his denial of his condition comes paranoia; aside from problems with his left side he lost all of his memory of the week leading up to the accident, including getting bought out by his business partners in his architectural firm. This leads to an uncomfortable scene when he tries to go back to work, culminating with a confrontation with his daughter Susan who also works there. She draws a line on a paper towel in the break room and asks him to bisect it. His vertical line is way off to the right, proving to her that he is unable to resume work as an architect. Of course, he doesn’t see it and accuses her of being in on the conspiracy against him.
Helping Martin (and the narrator through the ongoing dramatic irony) is his brother Brendan, who comes with his own issues with the past. He has already gone through rehab by this point in the story, may have had P.T.S.D. after going to Vietnam (we never know for sure—he claims he’s fine but we don’t get a full back story in that regard) and his still dealing with the death of his wife Rita. The brothers have been estranged for over thirty years, with Brendan not wanting to talk to Martin after the latter emigrated to Canada to avoid the draft while the former was still at war.
We find that the brothers are a lot more alike than they want to admit, including at one point in their lives attempting to commit suicide—Brendan through a drug overdose after the death of his wife, and Martin was about to gas himself in his car right before the snowplow hit. Martin forgot his attempt due to the memory loss but eventually reconstructs the memory after stumbling upon his suicide note. Yet he never knew about Brendan’s attempt, leading to an awkward meeting with their (supposedly) senile mother in a nursing home.
Both brothers struggle with their identities throughout the book, even if they won’t admit it to themselves. Whether they like it or not, they need each other along the way. The story is mostly about Martin, who uses other means to recover such as a digital recorder given to him by a psychologist at the beginning of the book to record a sort of “recovery log.” Most importantly, he conducts research of his idol, Konstantin Melnikov, whom me met years prior to the accident. Ultimately, Martin’s first true moment of realization in what is really wrong with him comes from a discovery of something he wrote himself, but he wouldn’t have gotten there without his brother’s help.
Brendan, on the other hand, isn’t given as much space in the book as his brother. He’s primarily there as a component of Martin’s recovery. Some significant amount of time is given to him as well; still, sometimes it feels as if there isn’t quite enough in his backstory and he gets relegated at times to an accessory to Martin’s. The book ends up feeling disjointed in a couple of places but it isn’t terribly distracting. Still, it would be nice to have a more fleshed out story for Brendan.
The book is intelligently written with deep knowledge of brain damage and recovery. (It doesn’t hurt that author Liam Durcan is also a neurologist at McGilil University.) Yet the real story is about discovering, or perhaps re-discovering, one’s identity through one’s interaction with others. It isn’t bogged down with an overt use of science and math, such as a Micheal Crichton book. The science of the medical field in which Martin’s condition lies serves only as a backdrop to his story of self-discovery. The true compelling part of the book lies with wondering whether or not he can find his way back to something resembling his former self… and how the central question of the book applies to the reader as well.