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An evocative and exquisitely written story about family, empire, and memory.
Impressive in its scope and ambition, this first novel is at once a family saga, a book that re-imagines the myth of empire, and a history of objects. The Echo Chamber is narrated by fifty-four-year-old Evie Steppman, who grew up in Nigeria in the 1950s during the last decade of British rule. As a child, Evie exhibited extraordinarily acute powers of hearing; now, alone in an attic in Scotland that is filled with objects from her past and with her powers of hearing starting to fade, she sets out to record her history before it all disintegrates into a meaningless din. Tales of a twelfth-century mapmaker in Palermo, stories whispered by embittered expatriates, and eyewitness accounts from Nigeria's civil war mingle with Evie's memories of her childhood, of her grandfather, a watchmaker who attempted to forge a mechanical likeness of his dead wife, and of her travels across America. Williams's interest in history and storytelling and his talent for evoking multiple voices will remind readers of the work of David Mitchell, Peter Carey, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
Luke Williams was born in 1977. He grew up in Fife, Scotland, and now divides his time between Edinburgh and London. The Echo Chamber is his first novel.
Listening, I gambolled in the womb. I turned somersaults and figures-of-eight. I saw nothing, felt only the warm stickiness of the amnion. No odours reached me in my chamber. Not the stink of gin or soap, spoiling meat or burnt oil. A mermaid sings. I was not a mermaid. A grub in a preserving jar floats in an azoic age. I was not that grub. Without conscience, I took in every sound. And this is what I heard: the vicious spitting of feral cats, rug-beaters thwacking, traffic-bustle and crowds. Fat goats being led to market, their bleating disharmonious and afraid. Women pounding manioc. Hawkers singing shrill and repetitive love songs to vegetables, paeans to fish and fruit—Shrimps, prawns, smoked alive! Lovely oranges, lovely fresh oranges—and tailors, their sewing machines chattering in bursts. Hiss and splutters were street food cooking in palm oil. I heard the punishing of boy-thieves. And at all times of the day and night the ringing of insects. The womb, helped by the resonance of the amniotic fluid, sounded with the buzz, the flutterings, the shrill almost musical droning. And in the rainy season, thunder and the wild mutiny of rain, the curtain chord striking the window. I noted the coursing hum of blood. The sea too was almost always present.
When I was twelve weeks in the womb my parents embarked on a tour of Nigeria. We—the three of us—travelled up from Lagos, past Ibadan and Illorin and, after crossing the Niger River, to the city of Zaria where prayer-songs and cantillation echoed in my head, new sounds I took in hungrily. At Gusau I heard three bars of a chorus played on a piano, over and over again. My parents toured Nigeria and the quiet but invasive whisper of the sea was replaced by the sucking-noise of car tyres on muddied roads, forest paths, long-drawn footfalls and aspirate conversation. I recall the unique echoing of public spaces, antechamber, church, mosque, state hall. The splitting crackle of a bush fire. Bird notes, one especially I remember, a flute-like call. And another, a kind of boom resembling the distant baying of a hound. I heard the slapping of limbs during wrestling matches. The agonies of a constipated child.
And if the sounds swept in any-which-way, I too was indiscriminate; so that amid the commonplace I also heard that which is normally held aloof, set aside for night or passed off with a quick intake of air, things which cannot be repeated easily: District Officer's dirty jokes, lovers' sighs, the death agonies of men. All of us, in the echo chamber of the womb, are able to receive the wildest spectrum of sounds; it's simply that we cannot retain them as we grow up. Who, in their maturity, can recall the special sound of sunlight? It rings in the ears as when one circles the top of a fine-wrought wine glass. And the tumescent heat of Nigeria which sprawls and rumbles like a jet aeroplane. I heard the almost unbearable sorrow of an elephant's call, the sad music of the nightsoil workers at Five Cowrie Creek. I eavesdropped on smugglers' tales, and they reminded me of prey-birds swooping, bent on murder. I perceived three worlds in the rhythm a girl beat out on an aluminium barrel at the same time each evening: the one that surrounds us, the reality that one can sense; the world of those who are dead and buried but continue to exist and may participate in our lives; and the splendid realm of objects, that hold in their very matter, despite their incapacity, the sign of everyone who has held them, traded, buried, smitten, pocketed, hurled, sought knowledge from, tapped out a rhythm on or packed away. My ears were keenly alert. They were small, yet they captured every sound.
It was not always this way. Because in the beginning, when I resembled a transparent grub, there was silence. In truth there was none because silence needs its other; and since I had no ears to speak of I had no noise and thus no silence. Rather, in the beginning there was a great emptiness. The silence was in me. And the silence was me. It lasted eighty days.
from The Echo Chamber