*A version of this review first appeared on the Books From Scotland website. Head there to sign up to their newsletter and never miss an issue.
There is little doubt that the time and times in which you first encounter a book will have no small influence on what you read into it and its effect on you. Re-reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye as an adult was a world away from reading in my teens when the impact they made was of huge significance. Similarly, when I read Sunset Song at the same young age I hated it, mainly because I didn’t understand it. Reading Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic again as a 28-year-old first-year university student, it hit me like a hammer. Because of how each of these books made me feel at the most impactful time of reading they remain among my favourite books.
Reading Martin MacInnes’ Gathering Evidence as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold across Europe was an unsettling experience – one I doubt will ever leave me. This is a novel that would pack a punch no matter when read, but to say it seems prescient in its timing and content is to seriously undersell it. The world is in a state of high anxiety – the atmosphere foggy, unclear, the earth noxious, potentially virulent, and its inhabitants have to deal with information and mis-information overload, struggling to work out what is real and what is imagined. Paranoia and mistrust are inevitable.
Divided into three parts, it opens with ‘NEST’ a short chapter that concentrates on a mobile computer app that monitors patterns in individual behaviour in a manner not dissimilar to those found on many modern smartphones, and just as addictive. However, what we see is a future when such technology is taken to its extreme conclusion. It’s a short story in its own right but also works as an overarching and contextual prelude as to what is to unfold, reminiscent of the opening of Stanley Kubrick’s classic sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey but in reverse, with the monkeys this time around central to the main narrative.
In a conservation area known as ‘Westenra Park’, primatologist Shel Murray and a team of analysts and observers arrive to investigate two mysterious deaths in the last known troop of Bonobo chimpanzees. From the beginning the project appears cursed as they lose a key member before even entering the unnamed country, are given strict rules and regulations by shady corporation WEBG, struggle with the realities of life in dense jungle, and are made to feel less than welcome by both people and place. As the survey begins in earnest you begin to ask who is studying who, and why.
Meanwhile, Shel’s partner John, a computer programmer and coder, is left at home and looking forward to getting their new house ready for her return. After a brutal attack he is left disorientated and damaged in ways he can’t quite comprehend. His memory is badly impaired, his wounds refuse to heal, and his only contact is a doctor who doubles as his warder as he is kept under house arrest. His confusion during this time is keenly felt, and, as with Shel, it appears that he is being observed and examined, part of an experiment the reasons for which are never clear.
The two stories are linked beyond the relationship of the main protagonists. Despite being a considerable distance apart they both find they are being changed and challenged physically and mentally. Shel takes ill, clearly affected by the extreme environment, particularly the surrounding plant life that seems to have infected her, but also the stress of being stalked by an unseen predator.
At the same time she is trying to understand and explain the patterns of behaviour of her simian subjects, something which in turn reflects back on her. John is also forced to cope with nature gone wild as a strange fungus spreads throughout their house creating an environment that can only hinder his recovery. In both cases you are asked to comprehend not only what is happening, but also who or what could be behind it. The evidence builds but to what end?
Reunited in part three ‘Place Beyond The Forest’ (‘stay away from the trees’, might be sage advice for the couple) Shel and John try to deal with the fallout from their recent experiences, as well as coming to terms with a brand new one. It is pointed that their stories remain mostly separate despite there being good reason for them to unite, and it feels like trust and faith, in each other and possibly themselves, has been lost. There are mysteries at all levels, from the global to the individual, with no easy answers and only further questions.
Gathering Evidence is impossible to truly pin down – part sci-fi, part paranoid thriller, part body horror, where Michael Faber’s Under The Skin meets Alan Trotter’s Muscle with a dash of David Cronenberg. More than any other novel I can bring to mind it is as much about sensation as it is story, and its success is all down to Martin MacInnes’ writing which is nothing less than breathtaking.
Describing an alien environment in all but name, at times the imagery is so rich, even fetid, that you can almost taste it. As if viewed through a high-powered microscope, insects, fungus, disease, and decay, are rendered beautifully, and that results in an appreciation of MacInnes’ writing that encourages empathy where there could have been revulsion or nausea. It would be fascinating to re-read the book in future, but right here and now it’ll shake you, and your world, to the core.