Wellcome Reading #3 – Turing

Murmur by Will Eaves

Having read the two entries on the Wellcome Book Prize longlist that I was assigned to (see here and here), I looked to the library to find another and managed to get my hands on Oxfordshire Libraries’ only copy of Murmur.

Let me say straight away, given that Alan Turing recently won the BBC’s Icon of the 20th C passionately championed by Chris Packham, interest in him has never been stronger. I fully expect Murmur to be shortlisted and it is such a shocking, strange and compelling novel, that I can see it winning the Wellcome Book Prize (although I’ve seven on the longlist still unread). Murmur’s publication in 2018 preceded that series of course, and the first chapter had been separately published as a short story the year before, being shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award then. Murmur was also shortlisted for last year’s Goldsmith’s Prize.

Although Eaves changes the name of his protagonist and other characters, Alec Pryor is to all intensive purposes Alan Turing. The novel begins with Alec recounting the circumstances of his arrest after picking up a boy at the fairground, who blackmailed him and got his friend to burgle Alec’s home too. This first section of the novel is written as a journal in vignettes:

The King died in the early hours of the day on which two very kind police officers paid me a visit. Seven weeks after my arrest, I was found guilty of gross indecency with a male person and sentence to receive a course of organo-therapy – hormone injections – to be delivered at the Royal Infirmary. The physical effects of those injections have been marked. Almost at once I began dreaming.

Alongside the chemical castration, Alec must have regular sessions with a psychiatrist. Doctor Smallbrook turns out to be a sympathetic character who befriends Alec; he doesn’t believe in the need to rehabilitate homosexuals, and takes Alec seriously as they talk about how he is feeling. Alec often talks in terms of science:

I have the conviction that I am now something like x – a variable.

When I look in the mirror, I think, thrice, ‘Is it me? Is it not me? Is it not me, yet?

We also have the first mentions of ‘Christopher’, who as we’ll discover was the love of Alec’s life at school. Christopher died aged seventeen, and Alec has grieved for him ever since.

The first section of this novel, comprising 23 pages, does stand on its own, but when I read on to see how Eaves had developed the rest of the novel, they complement each other very well indeed. Part Two is entitled ‘Letters and Dreams’ and it begins with a letter Alec writes to June, his former fiancée, with whom he worked and maintains a deep friendship; June knew their marriage would be just for show, but he couldn’t go through with it.

Roughly alternating between letters and much more impressionistic passages, Alec dreams ever more, seeing himself as the man in the mirror, discussing subjects from quantum mechanics to birds singing to God and putting himself into nasty fairy tales. Alongside these ramblings, are memories of his work and colleagues, but always too of Christopher. Alec has other worries too, as he writes to June:

I present our anxious government with a similar dilemma. I am a piece of sensitive information. I am, in fact, the personification of such information. I hold secrets. […] The difficulty is that there are only two things you can do with a piece of sensitive information, as we discovered at Bletchley, June. You can disguise it, or you can delete it.
The problem with disguising or encrypting it is that the original still exists. One has doubled the information, not made it less sensitive.

A third and final short section returns to a journal format, but you can see that the mind of the writer of the entries has changed by the end, finally become clear in one way or another.

I was very glad that I read up a bit on Turing before tackling this novel. Knowing the basics of his life story made the experience of reading Murmur more poignant. Turing was so much more than the man who cracked the Enigma code. A mathematician, computer scientist and logician, he was also a philosopher and theoretical biologist, and worked in many different areas after the end of WWII. His conviction in 1952 led to the removal of his security clearance and stopped his work with GCHQ.

Turing’s tragic death by cyanide at the age of just forty-one was such a waste – debate continues whether it was suicide or accidental poisoning (he kept a gold-plating set-up in his spare room) – but the treatment he had been forced to undergo was torture clear and simple; the effects and side-effects of the medication intolerable.

Eaves tells Alec’s story in the present tense, the immediacy of which is perfect for this narrative. The facts of Turing’s life are bound into Alec’s seamlessly in the experimental mix of vignette, letter and dream (fulfilling the Goldsmith Prize criteria admirably). Eaves portrays Alec’s troubled and altered mind so clearly. It’s an intense read, but even though I knew how it should end, Alec’s story was moving and I found myself getting angry on his behalf at this misguided treatment torture of the time. Thank goodness the powers that be finally came to their senses (for a moment) and brought in what’s become known as ‘Turing’s Law’ to pardon those who were similarly convicted.

Source: Library Will Eaves, Murmur (CB Editions, 2018), paperback original, 184 pages, BUY at Amazon UK via affiliate link below.

21 thoughts on “Wellcome Reading #3 – Turing

  1. cath says:

    An interesting review. This sounds like such an innovative read, I’ve added it to my list of books to look out for.

  2. Laura says:

    Sounds good! I’m not hugely enthusiastic about half of the Wellcome longlist this year, so it’s nice to hear about another promising shortlist choice.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I did, but it would work either way around – before or after. But if you didn’t read a bit about Turing, one way or the other, you’d miss the interconnectedness, and an additional layer of shock about its truth. So, yes, but I don’t think it matters which comes first.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Sounds like an intriguing and unusual read, Annabel. It’s dreadful that people could be treated this way and we need to guard the advances we’ve made, at least in some of the countries of the world…

  4. Rebecca Foster says:

    I’m so pleased you found this a powerful read. Especially given how short it is, I do hope to read it before the shortlist announcement if my hold ever comes in. I saw a film about Turing the other year, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was superb (for me anyway!). I’d forgotten The Imitation Game film – I saw that.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It is a stunning book, made more so knowing that the plot is rooted in real life. I hope you can find a copy.

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