The Booker Prize longlist: ‘Love and Other Thought Experiments’ by Sophie Ward

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On stumbling upon the pink hardcover of Sophie Ward’s Love and Other Thought Experiments in a local independent bookshop, my expectations of a Rachel Cusk-cum-Sally Rooney dissection of love and relationships was quickly dashed. It was far more original than I’d expected.

Sophie Ward’s debut novel…resists classification, and indeed description.

Sophie Ward’s debut novel, long-listed for the 2020 Booker Prize, resists classification, and indeed description. Whilst paying heed to various genres – literary fiction, philosophy, fantasy, science fiction, a space odyssey of sorts, with the effect of a collection of short stories – it shifts subtly between them all, so that one feels it occupies a new and complete genre of its own. Broadly speaking it covers the various incarnations of love and how we as humans are progressing technologically. Whilst there are contrary styles and tones across the chapters, the novel is tied seamlessly together by Ward’s sensitive touch and astute understanding of the human mind.

The novel is tied seamlessly together by Ward’s sensitive touch and astute understanding of the human mind.

The early part of the book focuses on the dynamics of the relationship between Rachel and Eliza, a couple facing a juncture in their love: a crisis of shared faith. Ward writes of Rachel ‘testing the temperature of Eliza’s love’, as she says to her that, whilst asleep an ant had crawled into her eye and settled within her head. ‘There is something living in my head. It has been for nearly three years. I have tried to ignore it but it won’t go away. It’s there when I wake up, it’s there when I go to sleep.’

The incident requires from Eliza belief, blind faith, in something which, whilst seemingly absurd, is symbolic of something greater between them; and between the two characters, it becomes a testament of unfaltering love, and the vehicle for assuring the relationship’s future. Ward intimately and evocatively explores their love as it extends and grows with the birth of their son Arthur, and yet (without revealing too much) the narrative retains the lingering presence of this ant, and therefore a malignant doubt. 

Scenes of Rachel and Eliza’s blossoming family are intersected with other storylines, that at points appear unrelated, but that slowly unravel to depict an intricate family history. Ward’s remarkable ability is in interleaving chapters that very faintly echo one another, but that lead to a denouement of surprising clarity. One feels slightly unsettled by the novel’s wavering narrative, which through the middle chapters, explores the different outcomes that might occur in one’s life if one were to put alternative philosophies into practice, harking back to the ‘thought experiments’ of the book’s title. As Arthur gets older, the tone and lexicon of the book change with him: we see the emergence of coding phrases, a new artificial narrator, and an episode that takes place on one of Mars’s moons; in stark contrast to the distinctly human episodes that mark the first part of the book. 

Ward does attempt to tether such broad subject matters and styles, but the novel’s beginning and end do feel slightly unlinked and the chapters not entirely fused to each other. The earlier chapters are particularly effective and read with an impressive pace, with deft character development.They feel so beautifully self-contained, that several could even be a short story; perhaps because the author originally wrote them as stand-alone features?

Ward’s novel triumphs at achieving something unique, as she masters in her characters the quality of being human, through love and thought.

The book is well researched and has a cerebral, philosophical feel, that may originate from Ward’s studies in Philosophy at the Open University, and this manifests itself in the character’s internal thoughts and monologues. The technical jargon of coding and artificial intelligence that litter later chapters, although at points inaccessible, succeeds in creating a daunting technological world that exists beyond the present, and that proffers a further thought experiment of what it is to be human in the face of artificial intelligence.

Ward’s novel triumphs at achieving something unique, as she masters in her characters the quality of being human, through love and thought, whilst simultaneously imitating these traits in artificial intelligence. Love and Other Thought Experiments is a formidable first novel, and though the reach of the narrative felt at points ambitious, it’s a book worth stumbling upon. 

Image: Corsair

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