Book review

The Eclipse of the Century by Jan Mark (1999)

Do you believe dreams have any significance? Even if you don't think so, it's very difficult to ignore a really vivid dream, isn't it? Some dreams can stay with you for a day or two while you mull them over ... so, I wonder how it really feels to have a 'near-death' experience?

Keith has one. In those few quiet moments after a terrible car crash on the motorway, Keith seems to float away out of his body through a tunnel to a strange place. It doesn't seem to be heaven, but nor does it seem to be hell. There are people there, but they are not his deceased loved ones come to greet him. They are strangers. They are in a broad city square, and overhead hangs a black sun. But he is not allowed to stay in this place. A woman drags him back:

'Go now, we'll meet again ... here in Kantoom, under the black sun, at the end of a thousand years.'

Of course, Keith has had a bang on the head, so it could all be in his mind. Or it could be an instruction, directing him to a particular place at a particular time. Or it could be a prophecy ...

Actually, Keith has never heard of Kantoom, but later, recuperating, he does his research in Leyton Public Library:

... there on the map, hanging like a bead on the tenuous thread of the railway line from Tashkent, dangling between steppe and desert, was Quantoum.

It's a forsaken place. It has been fought over for centuries because of its water supply: it's an oasis on the edge of the desert. Now abandoned by everyone - Genghiz Khan, the Communists, even the UN. But not abandoned by the Sturyat. They are a tribe of nomads who wandered into Quantoum five hundred years ago and became trapped by a border dispute. They never left.

It's a long introduction, but the scene is now set for the most extraordinary tale to unfold. Keith determines to visit Quantoum. He really needs to know what his dream foretold - if indeed it foretold anything. He leaves a last-minute e-mail behind him:

Keith has gone to Quantoum to find the black sun at the end of a thousand years.

Keith doesn't know what to expect in Quantoum, and neither do we. There is a bizarre ex-patriot community of left-overs swilling around, including two soldiers from opposing armies, missing presumed dead, now living in co-operation; a mutilated surgeon and his pet bear; the senile wife of a long-dead defected spy-diplomat; the widow of the museum curator, and a few genuine locals, the Quantoumis. They clatter round in the empty, bombed-out town, trying to keep the silence away, and far out-numbered by the Sturyat who live in a static nomadic tent village.

And there is an uneasy stand-off between the two groups. Five hundred years ago, when the Sturyat first arrived in Quantoum, the Khan of Quantoum confiscated the Sturyat soul-stones. The Sturyat believe them to be held in the Museum, and are still waiting for their return. They have a prophecy that when the time comes for the Sturyat to return to the place they came from, many will come from the west and many will come from the east and they will meet under a wonder in the heavens. Then their soul-stones will be returned to them.

Keith is fascinated to hear that he was 'sent for' by the Sturyat. Although he is the first, they expect more to follow, from the west. So, the Sturyat aren't a bit surprised when other new-age groups descend upon Quantoum. But Keith is, because he thinks they all intercepted his own e-mail about finding the black sun at the end of a thousand years in Quantoum. He thinks his own e-mail has started off a mad millennium rush of loonies to Quantoum.

As the town is overwhelmed with visitors from the west, the situation disintegrates into hysteria. Lives are lost. Keith's dream is now a nightmare. He thinks to himself:

'I didn't come to Quantoum for this.'

But it's too late now.

This is a powerful and strange story. Almost real. Almost magical. Haunting in its possibilities. I think you will be enthralled.

What can I read next?

Susan Price has written a similar, powerful and haunting story. Have a look at:

Less fixed in reality, but with a similar mounting tension, try this one by Adele Geras:

For an adult epic, you could try this one by Melvin Burgess:

David Almond writes beautiful stories which start off in reality and end up in total fantasy, and the transition is so smooth you can't see the join:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

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