The Fortress of Solitude
Jonathan Lethem

Like a match struck in a darkened room.

There was something in those simple eight words for me. Some image. Some sense. Some rhythm. Something I still can’t identify, but something that instantly said to me this is a special book. As I read that line aloud now I can hear the brief scratch and then the hiss. I can see the bright white flare; the flare that leaves a faint yellow outline in the darkness, the darkness that suddenly seems all the deeper. And then the steady fade as the flame turns from white to orange and the match burns itself out.

There, in those eight simple words, is the entire novel.

From those simple words I was hooked.

This is one of the greatest books I have ever read: Lethem is now in the rarefied league of Graham Greene, and, well, not many others. Someone who can write a deep, lyrical, beautiful but entertaining story that moves you.

I wish I could capture precisely why this was such a good book but it feels indescribable. It’s a story of a boy growing up. In the only world he has ever known, a world where he feels like perhaps he should be special — but he’s not. It’s a world to which he doesn’t belong, a world that he will forever be outside. The obvious escape into a fortress of his own devising is, however, a far more dangerous trap.

In the writing, the tone and the pace the sense of growing up was captured as I’ve never read before. It’s like a street scene coming into focus as the rising sun burns the morning fog away. The story starts with everything obscured and dreamlike. The descriptions are as if Dylan (the boy) isn’t really there, as if he is reporting a story told to him, about him. Which is precisely what all our earliest memories really are. As the fog clears and Dylan himself comes into focus he moves from being an outside observer to a passive participant to someone in control of his life. As if the story is the focal ring of a camera slowly spinning him into the right place in his life. Almost. Almost placing him where he belongs. In focus along with his world. Almost.

The beginning of the second part very nearly disappointed me. It appeared the book was about to head towards a very predictable place. But Lethem steered gloriously clear. Leaving us with the tantalising possibility of fantasy, the possibility of belonging, and the reality of the best damn book I’ve read in a long time.