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The Candy House - Jennifer Egan

I have two reading modes. On holidays I read slowly, savouring every word, immersed in the story, and spending luxurious hours pondering what I’ve read. Or, and this has become the default mode, it’s work I’m immersed in, and reading is a lone pleasure I cram in my spare time: I read fast, superficially, sometimes thoughtlessly, then file away the books I liked to re-read in that mythological future moment when time is plentiful.

I enjoyed The Candy House and I suspect Jennifer Egan’s latest adds up to more than the sum of each electrifying part. Sadly, I read this while my mind was elsewhere, experiencing each chapter as a single sugar hit, too easily forgotten from one night to the next.

To be fair, this is a polyphonic novel, with standalone segments connecting within a single narrative ecosystem, across decades. Each chapter not only focuses on a different character in a sprawling cast, but it’s also told in its own distinct style, format and voice. There are numerous strands to hold in one’s head, and I never did manage to step back far enough from each starry story to map out the constellations as a whole, let alone the whole narrative universe, which includes the outstanding A Visit From The Goon Squad.

The Candy House describes the dopamine hits that tempt us away from who we are, like chameleons who have forgotten their original colour. Memories are the last thing that hold us together, yet they too become commodities. While the generation that created this hyper-connected world now wallows in pre-tech nostalgia, its offspring wander, atomised and unmoored, in search of meaning.

There’s a high-tech device that allows people to download their memories, to either relive or share with the world. But the device is a MacGuffin. Egan’s genius has less to do with speculative futurism than it does with her ability to conjure the million ways humans behave in response to the crushing inevitability of time.

I wish I could block everything out and re-read both novels slowly, thoughtfully. The Candy House is a dazzling and virtuosic kaleidoscope of a novel, yet one whose full power may only reach those who dedicate to it the time it unarguably deserves.

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