BookBrowse Reviews The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

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The Echo Maker

A Novel

by Richard Powers

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers X
The Echo Maker by Richard Powers
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2006, 464 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2007, 464 pages

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A gripping mystery that explores the improvised human self. Novel

Every now and then a book comes along that is so head and shoulders above the mass of writing that it seems almost unfair to review it in the same issue as other books. The Echo Maker is one such book. Set against the Platte River's massive spring bird migrations, it's a gripping story that explores one of the greatest mysteries of all, the human brain, and how it makes us who we are, thus bearing similarities to Sebastian Faulks's recent novel Human Traces.

At the heart of the story is Mark, a likeable, unambitious 27-year-old, who suffers a head injury when he flips his truck and loses his ability to recognize the things closest to him, including his sister, his dog and his house.

Capgras syndrome is normally seen as a side effect of other issues, such as schizophrenia, so when Karin contacts the famous bestselling neurologist Gerald Weber (modeled somewhat on Oliver Sacks) about her brother, Weber is more than keen to take a closer look at the case that might easily form the basis for his next book. While Gerald is busy trying to solve the mysteries of Mark's brain, Mark is determined to solve the mystery of why his real sister is being kept from him, why a fake sister has been planted on him and who wrote the mysterious note that appeared by his bedside on his first night in the hospital.

Meanwhile Karin is having her own identity crisis as she finds herself inextricably drawn back into the place and people she has tried so hard to escape, in particular her two old lovers, an eco-warrior fighting to protect the Platte River and its bird populations, and a powerful local property developer. Added to the mix is a mysterious nurses' aid who seems to take an unnatural interest in Mark's treatment and Gerald's own partial breakdown (see sidebar for more about this).

In the hands of a lesser writer these plot elements, especially the love triangle, could so easily fall into melodrama, but what Powers offers is far from this. Loaded with natural symbolism and a strong environmental message The Echo Maker is thoughtful fiction at its best and a worthy winner of the 2006 National Book Award.

As the point of view shifts between Mark, Karin and Gerald, we also see how the shift in the dynamics between the main characters changes - as old mysteries are solved and new ones emerge, and the characters start to question what is real and what really matters. No one is immune from this soul searching but, ironically, the most impacted is Gerald Weber, the famous neurologist who merely comes to observe an interesting case, but finds himself laid vulnerable.

Richard Powers (b. 1957) has received numerous honors including a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction. He teaches in the Creative Writing M.F.A. program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, the fourth of five children. Early in the 1960s his father, a high school principal moved the family to the north Chicago suburb of Lincolnwood; then, when he was 11 (1968) his father accepted a job at the International School of Bangkok, and the family spent the next five years in Thailand, where Powers became both an accomplished music student (cello, guitar, clarinet and saxophone) and a voracious reader - his earliest literary passion being for nonfiction - particularly biographies and science. He recalls feeling that he was "destined to be a scientist", thus as a teenager he explored careers in paleontology, oceanography, archaeology and physics.

He enrolled at the University of Illinois as a physics major but was inspired to change fields after taking an honors literature seminar (taught by Robert Schneider, a charismatic teacher and an accomplished Freudian critic who convinced Powers that literature was the "perfect place for someone who wanted the aerial view") - which led to him earning an M.A. in English. After graduating, he worked in Boston as a technical writer and computer programmer while continuing to read voraciously; he spent many weekends at the Museum of Fine Arts where, one day, he came across a photograph titled "Young Westerwald Farmers on Their Way to a Dance". Within two days he had given up his job to focus on writing and three years later, in 1985, he published Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. It was praised by critics, but what most excited Powers was that at the age of 32 his indecision was over, "It was the discovery that I didn't have to give up anything that electrified me about writing, Here was a place where being a dilettante was actually an asset. You could, for two years, live vicariously as a German farmer or a molecular geneticist, that thing that you gave up at 18 and figured you'd never visit again."

Since then he has published a book every two to three years: Prisoner's Dilemma (1988), The Gold Bug Variations (stories, 1991), Operation Wandering Soul (1993), Galatea 2.2 (1995), Gain (1998), Plowing the Dark (2000), The Time of Our Singing (2003) and The Echo Maker (2006).

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in November 2006, and has been updated for the September 2007 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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