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The mysteries of consciousness are framed here at all times by the presence of death. Broks very slightly deflects the personal force of the story by giving his late wife a fictional name — he explains this, and the book is dedicated to her in her real one — but this move may have made it possible for him to achieve his rare degree of honesty and eloquence in the face of emotional pain. “Kate” is very much alive here, a humorous, occasionally tetchy, flesh and blood creation, a ravenous reader of novels, a little impatient with her husband’s endless philosophising and star-gazing, but presumably not too impatient, as she gives him a book about the neuropsychology of selfhood for Christmas. Her haunting words, spoken within days of her death, reverberate through the pages of the book: “It won’t be long now . . . But I’ll tell you something. You don’t know how precious life is. You think you do, but you don’t.” Why should it take impending death to teach us this? As Schopenhauer wrote of the prospect: “The heart rebels against it, and feels that it cannot be true.”

Kate, a partial invention, and Ava, a total invention, mingle with Ariadne, Theseus, Pan and a large mythic cast in these pages. The result is a great deal of fun but the underlying point is a serious one, and highly topical in neuroscience. Much of what we take to be present in the world is a projection of our knowledge and expectations: a simply drawn illusion makes the point nicely here — try as we may, we cannot overcome the brain’s (mis)interpretation of the image. The recent anguish of three Australian cricketers over an objectively diminutive offence teaches a related lesson. As Broks writes in his Prologue: “There is no clear dividing line in the brain between inner imagining and perceptions of the real, solid ‘world out there’. Reality and fantasy are built into the same neural circuits.”

The idea that we predict the world and ourselves into being is at centre stage at present in consciousness science. When Broks, who develops a concept of “imaginal reality” in the course of the book, writes that “the universe is an act of imagination”, or the neuroscientist Chris Frith that our experience is a “fantasy that coincides with reality”, they echo the Romantic philosophy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge or of William Blake, who told his dissatisfied patron, the down-to-earth Reverend Trusler: “You certainly mistake, when you say that the visions of fancy are not to be found in this world. To me, this world is all one continued vision of fancy or imagination.” Since encountering myself in Paul’s book — I know him and have a walk-on part — I have been toying with the idea that he may in fact have invented me.

One final theme threads through the pages, the theme of coincidence and chance. Chance rules our lives: had Broks refused his friend’s offer of a drink one fine evening, he would have met his intended date rather than, by chance, encountering Kate. When the morning after the funeral of a close friend’s wife, a bird flies in through an open window, sings sweetly and departs, no one can escape the thought that the song was a farewell. This book is indeed framed by death, but it powerfully evokes the beauty and absurdity, the sadness and the mystery, the beating pulse of life.
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