What would you do if you were walking through the park at dusk one day and a fairy appeared, offering to grant you a wish?
Trainee architect by profession, daydreamer by habit, Alex happens to have one ready: the power of instantaneous travel.
It’s only when he finds himself in Oman on his debut ‘flight’, and is drawn, by a chance encounter with the kindly scholar Burhan, into the perilous quest for an ancient cloth, that Alex realises there’s always a price to pay for a new gift.
Burhan sees the cloth as a beacon of hope for mankind. Salah, his ruthless cousin, wants to lock it away forever. The chase that ensues will threaten Burhan’s life, Alex’s life and Carol’s too, his enigmatic new girlfriend. But it may also reveal the identity and true purpose of the girl in the park with the wand.
Plot: Ken Paterson's The Story of the Cloth catches its readers with a pair of irresistible hooks. Its early passages are singular, offering thoughtful, amusing, mysterious fantasy of a high quality, especially as the scenario edges up against great questions of belief and existence. The ensuing hunt for the cloth, though, plays out more routinely than those dazzling first chapters promise, and several intriguing plot elements (an aphrodisiac, a Tube-ride pickup of a woman of mystery) ultimately just set up familiar sex farce and men's adventure story beats, including the standard-issue rescue of a damsel from an impregnable prison. The novel's ending, however, honors the promise of the opening, revealing a weird (in the best sense of the word) and touching cosmology behind the fairy fantasy, a vision of a bicameral heaven in the humanist spirit of Powell and Pressburger's "A Matter of Life and Death."
Prose: Line by line, The Story of the Cloth sparkles. Paterson's prose is scrupulous, elegant, and pleasing, studded with sly turns of phrase and observations worth lingering over. The dialogue is strong and inviting, both when the characters cheerily one-up each other and especially when Burhan tells the long history of the miracle cloth. While in earnest, the novel often is written in a tone of wry detachment, which works much better in the scenes of curious fantasy and everyday amusements than in the passages of suspense and adventure in the novel's mid and late sections. Paterson tends to summarize the action without diving into Alex's in-the-moment consciousness, so the hero's fears and perceptions and pulse feel distant.
Originality: This novel is most inspired when it's at its most unique, when readers and protagonist both are caught up in the possibility of what Paterson describes as "curves in the logic of the universe." As the pages pass, however, those original elements--and a spirit of philosophical inquiry--become increasingly subordinate to familiar thriller plotting.
Character Development: The first page invites us into the mind of Alex, the kind of bloke who already has worked up a painstaking response just in case he's ever offered a magical wish. After that, though, we're given little insight into his hopes or desires, learning only that he's an architect who sees slow international arthouse cinema with a friend. It comes as a surprise when he announces that he's in love with Carol, the woman of mystery who turns out to be not that mysterious at all, though her interest in Alex might prove more convincing if she had a stake in the intrigue. The narrative voice is sufficiently far removed from Alex that its wit and verve seems unconnected to his mind. He encounters a sprawling cast of characters, but for all of their amusing dialogue most of them make little impression -- they tend to sound like each other and like the narrator. Burhan proves a welcome exception, however, and one of the book's pleasures comes from the teasing possibility that he might be setting Alex up.
Date Submitted: August 30, 2019
“… harrowing moments … engrossing tale … Paterson’s exceptional prose turns the seemingly mundane into alluring imagery … A solid blend of genres, though the writing and characters shine brightest.” – Kirkus Reviews
“… Well written and thought provoking, The Story of the Cloth is comparable to another journey, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Both are eloquently told adventures on human life and the journeys we embark on. … The author’s ingenious twists and unexpected tangents have the reader sitting on the edge of his/her seat, wondering what to expect next. … This is a powerful and creative story with a complexity that is both satisfying and engrossing.” (5 stars) – Readers’ Favorite.