The Echo Chamber is the fantastical life story of Evie Steppman. She spent her much of her childhood in Nigeria when it was under British rule. When the revolution came she and her civil servant Father moved to Scotland. Now it’s 40 years later and Evie has sequestered herself in the attic of her Scotland home in order to write her memoirs. Evie may be mentally ill and therefore an unreliable narrator. She definately suffers from tinnitus and is challenging herself to write this memoir before the ringing in her ears renders her unable to think of anything else.
Evie’s, formerly, magnificent hearing plays a big part in the mythos of The Echo Chamber. She remembers being in the womb and listening to her Father tell her stories, sing her songs and in general explaining the history of the world to her all the while never coming to the end of anything. Her mother she has no memory of. Evie tells us that she killed her Mother because she wouldn’t be born. Happily two months late Evie was unwilling to leave her cozy home and join the world.
When Evie does arrive she is off to an auspicious start with her cradle next to her Mother’s coffin but she is more of a witness to all that comes next instead of a participant. All around her swirls characters that fascinate. Her family tree includes a watchmaker Grandfather who attempts to build a replica of his dead wife. Her extended family of servants, friends and a lover experience the end of colonialism, war and genocide.
Author Luke Williams uses Evie as our tour guide through her life and as any good guide will do she makes frequent stops to share history, opinions and the lives of others. These interjections bounce through the novel like they would in a conversation. This leads to that, wait a minute listen to this first, maybe it all happened this way, etc. There is not a linear storyline in The Echo Chamber. The structure is like the Louis De Bernieres novel Birds Without Wings or magic realism with stories within stories, shifts in time periods and a very broad view taken by Evie as to what constitutes her life story.
All the nontraditional elements that Williams employees in the book and the references in names, personal abilities and tall tales to novels like Midnight’s Children, The Tin Drum and even real people like Adolph and Eva make for fascinating reading but ultimately I think the sum total of the parts is better than the whole. There is a wealth of amazing writing in The Echo Chamber but it is all artifice. The novel always feels contrived. It fails to find an organic center that would allow the reader inside.