The Measure of Darkness

The Measure of Darkness, by Liam Durcan, Bellevue Literary Press, 2016, 251 pages

The Measure of Darkness, as the title might suggest, plumbs the darkness into which a man has fallen after emerging from a brain injury. Acclaimed architect Martin Fallon is hit by a snowplow as he drives to the Eastern Townships in Québec. When he awakens from his coma, his caregivers, family and colleagues realize that he suffers from “neglect syndrome” which makes a person unable to perceive the left side of his visual world. Martin, like other victims of this deficit, is unaware of his condition. However, as the weeks in a rehabilitation centre unfold, he slowly realizes the extent of his existential losses: he has lost his professional licence; his colleagues have ousted him from the company he founded; his two ex-wives have disowned him; one of his daughters has turned her back on him, and his other daughter hasn’t quite found a way to approach him. The only person who stands by him, ironically enough, is his estranged elder brother who returns to nurse him after a thirty-year absence.

Martin’s thoughts move from present to past, with side-detours into fantasy, portrayed with a deftness that is a credit to the author’s skill as a writer and his deep understanding of the human brain/mind connection as a neurologist. It is from Martin’s paranoid meanderings that we learn that he landed in Montréal as a draft-dodger; that his elder brother fought in Vietnam and returned a broken man; that his own parents abandoned the marginalized minorities that had sustained them in Detroit, when the going got rough, and that he himself had, in a sense, abandoned his family for his career. In his post-trauma life he tries to cope by drawing a parallel between himself and his mentor Konstantin Melnikov, a renowned Soviet-era architect who retreated into obscurity after being disowned by Stalin.

The pared-down clinical precision of the author’s prose serves as a foil to the narrative complexity of the novel. By providing the reader with insights into a mind defeated by nature and… lack of nurture, Liam Durcan has succeeded in producing a work of Dostoyevskian proportions. For this tour de force, he was awarded the Quebec Writers’ Federation 2016 Paragraphe Hugh McLennan Prize for Fiction last November. The Measure of Darkness, a novel about how what was disowned wreaked havoc in a man’s life, is as disturbing as it is compelling.