Sunday, 29 April 2007

Review of 253 by Geoff Ryman

I was reading the other day that novels can be divided into two types. One is driven by character and the other is driven by the quality of the writing rather then interest in the characters. 253 by Geoff Ryman is a fine example of how wrong this distinction is. The story at one level describes the journey of 7 ½ minutes on the London Underground from Embankment station, to the Elephant and Castle where it crashes and passengers die. It does this by dipping into the lives of 253 people. Why 253? There are seven carriages on a Bakerloo Line train, each with 36 seats. A train in which every passenger has a seat will carry 252 people. With the driver, that makes 253! It takes place on the 11th January 1995, which is the day the author learned his best friend was dying of AIDS.

Each passenger’s life and thoughts is explore in actually 253 words over three sections as described below.

Outward appearance : does this seem to be someone you would like to read about?

Inside information : sadly, people are not always what they seem.

What they are doing or thinking : many passengers are doing or thinking interesting things.

We work through the characters one by one in each of the seven carriages. As we do we gain a sense of the time moving as people leave and arrive the carriages. In each carriage an incident happens from a shout, to performance art that ripples through the characters thoughts and behaviour.

As you read, you discover connections between passengers, the different reactions of characters to each other and the events. Some story lines are resolved others leave you curious to know more. Several characters make key decisions as they sit and think and some you find out the consequences and some you don’t. All the time as you read you know they are moving to destruction and yet the complexity of their lives continue to unravel. The final carriage and reasons for the behaviour of one of the characters are genuinely moving. In the final sections the crash and who dies is described so ending at random the lives of some the characters and so their stories end but you know the consequences some happy, some tragic some bitter-sweet.

In between the carriage sections are mock adverts and many of the stories have footnotes explaining some fact or the basis of the author’s decisions. These may be true, lies or misleading. It is different and if you want to see and read it an interactive version click on to

I highly recommend if for nothing else because of the sheer inventiveness of sketching believable characters in 253 words within a structure that gives pace and emotional depth.

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