Reviewed by Nicole Murphy (this review was first published in August 2006)
Prismatic is from the shortlived Lothian Dark Suspense line (it was intended to be a long-running line but was cut with just four books under contract). If Prismatic is indicative of the calibre of the books that would have been published, then Australian readers can consider themselves robbed.
Prismatic is three stories in the one book, each an interesting tale in its own right, but each building on the information of the other to create the full story. The basis of the entire story revolves around a patch of mangrove swamp on the Lane Cove River, in Sydney. In antiquity, the Aboriginal tribes avoided it. People living nearby tell strange stories. It is a place to be avoided.
Prismatic tells us the result of three occasions when this patch of earth wasn’t avoided. The first is set in 1789, when the fledgling colony of New South Wales is facing famine, heartbreak and despair as the promised ships from England fail to appear. Solomon Pendle, a convict, escapes into the bush. But he sickens and returns to the colony to put himself on the Governor’s mercy. There is none, Solomon is beheaded, but not before he passes on the sickness, a kind of madness, to another convict, Mattias. Mattias is a witch and the sickness finds a fertile ground in his mind. Slowly but surely Mattias becomes the leader of his small group, passing the sickness onto them. They gather together and escape, finding the place on the river from where the sickness came. The local Aboriginal tribe come and manage to contain the sickness there, destroying the bodies.
The next storyline is set in 1919. As influenza rages in Sydney, a convalescent hospital for returned servicemen is built on the banks of the Lane Cove river. Strange symptoms start to arrive, a kind of madness. Doctor Adam Waters is called in. A man ravaged by the horrors of war, he’s done some work on a strange phenomenon known by people who live around the Lane Cove river. Dr Waters quickly realises what he calls the Mycosis is running rampant in the hospital. He links it to the hospital’s construction, particularly the discovery of human remains in the mud by the river. Dr Waters himself is infected, and he fights it long enough to destroy all those in the hospital, and eventually himself. He writes the story of his discoveries and buries it, along with the bodies of himself and his lover, as a home is burnt around them.
The third storyline is set in modern Sydney. Jacqueline Cooper is researching the occult history of Sydney, and has come across the stories of strange phenomena around the Lane Cove River. She investigates and finds a part of the river where a strange mould grows. She calls on the assistance of an environmental study group, and Daniel O’Connor comes with her out to the site. Daniel finds and digs up a strange bricked in room, and upon opening it they find two decomposed bodies and a bag full of papers and a diary. Jacqueline calls the cops, they come and Daniel (who had already been acting a little strangely) becomes totally weird, kissing one of the cops. Soon afterwards, one of the cops who attended goes mad and kills a person he just pulled over. Daniel is declared the head of the investigation and rumours begin of a strange sickness. It’s named Prism, because it’s suffers claim to see auras. Jacqueline starts to read the diary, written by a Dr Adam Waters, who’s work she’s familiar with from her studies. A police officer comes to visit, Dr Waters’ diary and his papers are stolen, then her flatmate, infected with Prism, attempts to kill her. Jacqueline must put together all the facts, work out what is going on and then stop it.
No, I won’t tell you if Jacqueline succeeds or not. You’ll have to get the book to read yourself, and you should. This isn’t always the easiest book to read: initially, Jacqueline’s storyline is quite confusing, and the tie between the three stories can be hard to see. But it’s worth sticking with it, because it does become clear. These three stories interact with each other well, as the reader discovers the events of 1789 and 1919, they also become clear to Jacqueline, or impact on events in her world, and make it easier to understand what is happening to her.
I particularly liked the fact that all three stories have a different feel, a different voice. This is because Edwina Grey is not one person, but three: Kyla Ward (who wrote the 1789 storyline), Evan Paliatseas (who wrote the 1919 storyline) and David Carroll (who wrote the modern storyline). That all three stories work so well together is proof of a great collaboration.
With each storyline, you find yourself getting involved and pulled in, and it was almost annoying when you find yourself going to another, until you’re pulled into that one. The 1789 storyline is less interesting in terms of the plotting and what you discover from it, but I found it interesting from an historical perspective. The 1919 storyline was my favourite, because I found the character of Adam so interesting, and watching him fight the mycosis as he called it was a great struggle. The current storyline had the most interesting plot, but it was also the more difficult to understand, I think because I wasn’t able to maintain the distance that I could with the others, I found myself recognising things and trying to understand them based on my own understanding.
The mentions of modern events and things such as Red Sails in the Sunset (a Midnight Oil album) in the modern storyline actually pulled me out of the story. I find myself wondering whether in five or ten years, people would be able to read the story and get the various allusions within it.
The 1789 and 1919 storylines utilised excerpts from a letter and a diary. While these are interesting, because these documents were being read by Jacqueline in modern times, they often lost their impact because they were describing events already spoke on in the narrative.
Prismatic is a very well-written story, descriptive without being overly wordy. The story line is terrific and the characterisation is very interesting: even the most minor character is well-formed, and every character is flawed, making them great reading. It’s only 100,000 words, but there’s a whole lot of story in those few words. It’s a great thriller, it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted (if you don’t like the idea of people eating other people’s brains, don’t read this) but it’s a great read.