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May 2001
 
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The Tower of Oblivion by Oliver Onions (1921)

These days if Oliver Onions is mentioned at all, beyond a snigger at his name, it is usually because of his incomparable ghost story "The Beckoning Fair One" in the aptly titled Widdershins. Yet Onions wrote much more, many of them curiosities, from the wonderfully innocent, yet anally challenging, Draw in Your Stool (odd and moody tales of a more traditional sort) to the harshly alien The Story of Ragged Robyn and the suffocatingly mesmeric The Hand of Kornelius Voyt. But one book that stands menacingly above all these, like a Hodgsonian House of Silence, is The Tower of Oblivion.

It's the story of novelist Derwent Rose as told by his confidant Sir George Coverham. Rose discovers that he is growing younger, not a day at a time, but in occasional unpredictable leaps of years, which happen when he sleeps. Although physically 45 at the start of the novel he has become 35, but with his future memories intact, and he believes he will regress till 16 and then die. Beautifully written in homage to Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, which has a similar atmosphere, Onions grapples with trying to portray a man whose memories of past events intensifies as memories of the present (in real time) fade. Rose tries to recapture lost moments of a past that only exists for him within a present that means nothing. Rose's depiction of his memory as a flickering candle in the dark is a haunting image as is the story's climax as Rose meets his fate striving to the end to resolve the enigmas of his life. Poignant, challenging, breathtaking.

—Mike Ashley

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