Sparks of Bright Matter

Written by Leeanne O'Donnell
Review by Fiona Alison

O’Donnell’s debut is a surreal meditation on medieval science in Georgian London, centering an illustrated and highly sought-after book, the Mutus Liber.

The novel opens in 1780 with the inadvertent death of Mal Burkiss, assistant to alchemist, Peter Woulfe, who is thereafter haunted by Mal’s ghostly presence and for whose death he must atone. Rewind to 1744, when the book is in the possession of apothecary Josiah Sweetnam, who tasks his young apprentice, aspiring chemist Peter Woulfe, with returning it to its owner, Baron Swedenborg.

But the baron is suffering a strange fit of madness, and Peter finds himself unable to hand over the precious burden. Thereafter, he succumbs to the seductive charms of the thieving Sukie, who relieves him of his treasure while he is still in the throes of her voluptuous gifts. Some very dangerous men tear the book apart, but Peter claims its remnants, and ponders its strange effect on those who possess it, not least provoking bouts of madness. He studies its illustrations which he’s sure are connected to his ongoing search for the catalyst to turn base metal into gold. He hides the book, foiling his rival who is blackmailing him over Mal’s death, and who seeks the book’s knowledge for personal gain.

O’Donnell’s novel is a highly atmospheric read, written in an oblique nonlinear style quite open to interpretation. Inanimate objects seem imbued with life and movement, as though the solution to the alchemical conundrum is about to break through the narrative. It begins and ends in Ireland, the mystical, shrouded land of Peter’s birth, where he finds something far more precious than wealth and power. This is not a straightforward read―the kind of novel that grew on me―an otherworldly journey down a dark path, I believe well worth walking.