Skip directly to content

Imaginary Friends

on Thu, 11/28/2013 - 17:06

This week's entry comes to your from our own Janice Brent, with a great recommendation for a great book, Alison Lurie's Imaginary Friends:

Alison Lurie’s 1967 novel, set in the imaginary New England town of Sophis, tells the story of a small group of people who believe they’re receiving messages from the planet Varna. Channelled mainly through the beautiful young Verena, the Truth Seekers hear frequently from Ro and other Varnians, who want to guide humankind towards enlightenment. But unbeknownst to them, two of their members (one of whom narrates the novel) are sociologists carrying out a study to see how a group like this deals with internal conflict.

I’ve found it strange to be reading this book just when a tiny cult has been unearthed very close to where I live (in Brixton). This cult – like Lurie's Truth Seekers - seems to have had a charismatic leader, and to have believed (or once believed) that its members would soon be saved by Mao’s Red Army.

It’s distressing to read of how the three women who've escaped from the London cult were terrorised over more than 30 years. Lurie's novel is disturbing, too, even sinister – but it’s also funny. And it’s quite unputdownable, although, or perhaps because, we know something about how it’s going to end right from the start. We learn on the first page that Professor McMann, senior colleague of the narrator, Roger Zimmern, apparently went out of his mind at some point during their investigation. And we know that Roger was warned off working with McMann by another colleague, but took no notice.

You read the book to find out what went wrong and how, and why. Roger, at the centre of it all, is a sympathetic character, with his self-doubts and weaknesses, but also his striving to be honest and understand what part he’s playing in what’s going on.

The book is full of puzzles. We’re not sure how much, or in what way, mos tof the Seekers believe in Varna. E.g. Verena's uncle, Ed, scarcely ever speaks, though he attends all the meetings. And is that garbled automatic writing message she produces, which seems to mention the three people Roger has just been thinking of, a coincidence, or does it really demonstrate ESP? In fact, it’s hard to say how deluded the Seekers are, compared with most other people.

Roger and McMann are like the Seekers in many ways. Like them, they form a separate, isolated group, keeping their activities secret from colleagues as well as from the Seekers themselves. And just as there are power struggles and differences of status within the Seekers, the two men both want to confirm their status among their academic peers – we’re not sure how deluded McMann is in thinking that two colleagues are out to get him. Their uneasy master-pupil relationship, which doesn't quite break into open conflict, mirrors Verena's with her aunt Elsie.

The book is skilfully constructed, every character and every scene seem to be necessary, and the quiet descriptive touches: ‘the light failed and the air thickened with damp’, help to create the sense of a monotonous small-town setting within which emotions are running high.You finish reading with the realisation that you should never be certain you know who around you is wise and good, and who deluded, ignorant, even malevolent.

Other recommendations

Before we go, we'd like to draw your attention to the Stew Festival 2013. We're looking forward to their annual student food festival event, this Saturday at Nido Student Living in Spittlefields. Yummy!

Any suggestions for books we can mention? Leave a comment below or drop us an email at!