It is ten years since the death of Richard Dawkins and religion is on the brink of being classified as a mental disorder. April Smith is a religious fanatic, a murderer who has blown up a busload of atheists. Now a selective mute, she has no words to defend her actions. Before the case is heard in court, Dr. Finlay Logan, a criminal psychologist, is charged with assessing whether April is of sound mind. A serial philanderer, Logan is still submerged in grief following the loss of his daughter several years previous and has no faith to fall back on. That is where Dr. Salmon comes in. A pioneering neuroscientist working at the intersection of faith and science, she claims to have developed a procedure that allows the participant to experience forces outside the usual realm of sensation and leaves them with an unerring sense of calm. Logan is sceptical but perhaps the procedure will pry April open – perhaps it will be her salvation. But then again, when the only other alternative to breaking from his grief is medication, maybe it could be his too.

Despite her seeming prominence to the story from the blurb, April quickly slips into the background and Devotion (note the various connotations of the title) becomes Logan’s story. This allows Barber to focus in on the individual psyche of her protagonist but also removes from the book of an interesting dialogue between a character who buries their damage in faith (April) and one who refuses to yield to such comfortable palliatives (Logan). So put to one side ideas of April’s story being relayed vicariously by her third party sympathiser, ala The Silence of the Lambs or In Cold Blood. Instead, Devotion traces a path through the knotty issues of science and spirituality in the mind of Logan alone, as he finds a way to have both exist in a rational world that does not preclude faith.

Devotion by Ros Barber book cover
Before I look at how Barber navigates the Big Ideas the novel grapples with, it is worth trying to understand Logan as a character. He is a man who has stolen women – wives even – from other men, who is crushed under the grief he feels for his lost daughter and for the son and wife who grow increasingly distant from him, and Barber inhabits his mind with an effortlessness that is admirable. It is not a pleasant place to be. Logan’s world is as saturated with guilt as any Graham Greene novel, minus the Catholicism, and he lives an absent existence – a ghost of a husband, a father, even a potential lover to the Other Women he encounters.

As the novel develops, it becomes clear that Logan is being presented with two paths that might alleviate the psychic strain he is under: one pharmacological in the form of Anesthine, a miracle drug that separates the individual from their feelings more completely than any SSRI on the market today, a little like Solon in Douglas Coupland’s Generation A; the other a leap into the spiritual through the life-altering procedure Dr. Salmon is pioneering. Like all good novelists, Barber places the decision squarely in the hands of her protagonist – he, and no one else, is the driver of his own story. As Logan stands before Dr. Salmon’s procedure he recognises that he is about to make a significant decision. Yet, by pulling a multiverse trick only available in fiction, it is one that the narrative defers as it provides two alternate endings, one in which Logan embraces Dr. Salmon’s procedure and another in which he places his faith in pharmacological solutions to his grief and alienation.

Both options raise interesting ideas around free will and how far science should meddle in the (negative) emotions of an individual. This is reminiscent of Alex’s transformation in A Clockwork Orange – from boy who feels too much to robot. Logan is looking for ways to alleviate guilt and worry, but whether drugs are a long-term solution or merely a palliative, whether religion promotes morality or merely fixes one’s gaze on something beyond this world and leaves its followers in an amoral state where they fail to connect with the present, is left entirely open by the novel.

Which state of altered consciousness the reader finds more suitable is largely irrelevant – far more interesting are the discussions provoked by each choice. The Anesthine dulls Logan and disconnects him both from his grief and from the world around him. A new barrier between experience and the self protects him but alters him too. The experience of medication has been written about before and in more detail – the more interesting discussion in Devotion comes from the ending in which Logan undergoes Dr. Salmon’s procedure.

Consciousness research is a growing area of cognitive neuroscience and is clearly something that interests Barber. The notion that religious experience can be replicated (or, if you prefer, encouraged) by electrical pulses that cause synaptic changes in the brain raises various questions. In the novel, those that undergo the procedure are awakened to the interconnectedness of all things, seeing the individual as simply a part of different forms of energy that make up the universe, and thus are able to find an inner peace. It is worth noting that for all that spirituality is afforded room to breathe in the novel, the idea of God as an anthropomorphised deity is never given any serious consideration, but God is rather considered a byword for neurological experience as the self convenes with the infinite, more akin to the conception of God in The Color Purple. This idea of the self as a collection of energy that affects other energy with which it comes into contact brings into play the idea that one’s attitude directly affects the world. April, after the procedure, believes, like Nicola Six in London Fields, that a murder requires both a murderer and a willing murderee; that death is simply a changing of state, a shift in the arrangement of energy, that is no more or less desirable than any other that one might experience.

As the novel’s conclusion draws near, Logan’s own thoughts begin to focus on the notion that the world around one can be altered by one’s attitude towards things, a kind of extension to cognitive-behavioural theory, here allowing thoughts and intentions to have a direct impact outside the confines of one’s own self. This may run counter-intuitive to the commonly accepted rational materialism that pervades Western intellectual thought but unmeasured energies that govern the space we exist in is both an appealing idea and an area towards which increasing amounts of research is focused (work around epigenetics is particularly relevant here). Changes in character can be difficult to pull off in fiction. Anyone who has read Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good will know how quickly a character who has experienced a ‘revelation’ can become tiresome. Thankfully, Barber avoids this by containing Logan’s new found tranquillity to a solitary chapter at the end of the book.

Barber’s writing is full of good ideas that weave fiction with ideas and demonstrate the craft of her storytelling. I particularly like the way in which Barber weaves the big ideas she explores into the style of her writing. For example, dialogue is not marked by a pair of quotation marks in the book but instead by italics, the words spoken by the characters slanting lazily and, unconstrained by the book-ends of more common punctuation, seem to melt into the prose and become part of the world of the novel beyond the dialogue. There is an evident link to Logan’s ideas around the power of semantic thought affecting the world in this stylistic choice. At the base of cognitive-behavioural theory as with the world of fiction, it is words that create reality – they are the all-powerful unit on which realities depend.

While Barber relays the ideas that make up Devotion clearly enough it is on the most human topics that she is strongest. Grief and the processing of loss, so important in the novel, are topics sensitively written, Barber perhaps drawing on personal experience (she lost her brother at a young age and her mother in an accident). She is good on affairs too, and the tiny cracks in a marriage that can cause two people to inhabit the same space in body only. However, if she is good on emotion, Barber is weaker on dialogue. There are times when phrases feel quite uncomfortable in the mouths of the characters, with slips into flatness and formalness that deaden the dialogue whenever they creep in. This awkwardness is most apparent in the speech of April Smith – the youngest character given voice – whose tone too often slips into jarring formalness that doesn’t sit well in the mouth of a down and out teenager.

I’ve got to be honest and say I was sold on the idea of Devotion before I’d even picked up a copy. The blurb and cover more than did their job. The beautiful cover, the multi-coloured sheen daubed across the skulls reminiscent of the cosmos, of MRI scans, signposts the type of book one can expect to find on first view. If the skulls represent mortality and those lost to us, the colours pick out the links that connect those lost back to the present world, their essence kept alive through scientific or transcendent means and the joy that can fill a life lived under the constant knowledge of its transience.

Reading the book, I was not disappointed. Devotion feels like the sort of post-Enlightenment novel that grappled with the Big Questions, throwing opposing views together to see what would happen in a fictional world. In this case, however, readers looking for a clear answer to the questions posed will be disappointed – instead the very human qualities that cause us to raise such questions are brought to the fore. Logan’s grief, the isolation of his existence is as important as the experimental neuroscience. It is difficult to know how much of what Dr. Salmon – pioneer of the consciousness treatment that Logan undergoes – claims, as with much in the novel, is actually true, but perhaps this is the point – reserving judgement, in Fitzgerald’s famous phrase, is a “matter of infinite hope”. Perhaps rights and wrongs are obstructive and coming to peace with all the world’s, all humanity’s, flaws is a more comfortable starting point from which to approach anything. When you weigh up the flawed solutions that humans find to deal with the unfailing traumas of existence, the route to personal salvation – to reconciling oneself to the nature of life – is less important than the fact that we pull ourselves through and continue.