The Mathematics of Love by Emma Darwin is an enthralling tale of passionate
love set in the aftermath of two turbulent wars in two different centuries,
a story whose underlying theme encompasses the illusive and chimerical
nature of vision, examining through its many portholes what it might mean to
perceive, both what is real and insubstantial. Darwin attempts to achieve
precisely what she quotes on the frontispiece of her novel:

to make solid the unreachable ghost which fades as soon as seen, without
leaving a shadow in the looking-glass, a shiver in the water of the
–Nadar: Quand j’etais photographe, 1899

Reading Emma Darwin’s novel, we are constantly exposed to underlying
intimations of something else going on, though to pinpoint it would be
impossible. But like any superb mystery, once we reach the last sentence,
everything becomes clear and we wonder how it was we never knew.
Right up to the final pages there is no way of knowing whether this story
will end well, or–otherwise. In this it ranks with the best of literary
endeavours, a novel whose ending is absolutely perfect. It is not often when
a story causes my heart to tremble. Does my praise read like hyperbole? I
hope not.

But in case you think I am lavishing too high a praise on this debut novel,
let me point out that the writer in question has gone on to produce another
novel, A Secret Alchemy, yet another historical, while at the same time teaching in a creative writing programme herself, as well as writing a highly recommended blog, This Itch of Writing. Darwin’s illustrious beginning has stood the test of time, her sparkling debut followed by equally noteworthy offerings.

Darwin’s novel is quite different in tone and structure from other
historicals which I have enjoyed. Though this is a story which moves
backward and forward between two different time periods, the reader is never
quite prepared for any coming change in setting. Instead the author seems to
delight in making full use of the element of surprise, throwing her reader
suddenly from the early 19th century straight into the mid-20th century,
leaving the reader somewhat bemused and disorientated, with a strong sense
of having being cast out, wondering why here, why now. The switch is abrupt
and occurs without warning. The experience for this reader at least, was
often one of shock. The first time it happened I floundered, uncertain and
unable to make sense of the words I was reading. It was only then that I
realised I was reading a novel set in different time periods. But it wasn’t
long before I began to discern that there was a kind of concurrence running
between the two eras, with hints from one reflecting upon the other, though
again, it would most likely be some time later before suggestions and
intimations became clearer.

Emma Darwin is a master storyteller, a weaver of words capturing nuanced
portrayals of unpredictable emotions with a skill equal to any poet worth
her weight in images. For language is her gold, and Darwin has a firm grasp
of its worth and power. It is precisely in this ability of hers where she
wields her magic through the entire novel, gradually bringing her tale to a
crescendo in the final pages. In many ways, her novel reminds me of one of
Charlotte Bronte’s lesser known novels, Villette, a tale I have always felt
compelled to compare to an opera of tragic proportions. I will not divulge
here how Emma ends her story, but I will say this that not all stories end
in happy ever after, nor indeed do all literary novels require tragedy. But
to understand what I mean you will have to read this novel for yourself.

Emma Darwin is a novelist, short story writer and creative
writing tutor living in London. The Mathematics of Love was her debut novel,
and both short- and long-listed in a number of literary awards.

[This review was first posted on Story Circle Book Reviews ]