Turning Back the Sun

Less well known in the United States for his fiction than for his travel books, notably those on trips through Russia and China, Colin Thubron’s fifth work of fiction reveals a degree of intellectual and artistic ambition which will undoubtedly increase appreciation for his gifts as a novelist. TURNING BACK THE SUN is set in the years immediately before World War II in an unnamed country whose landscape resembles that of the Australian outback. Its social and political structure is authoritarian and implicitly antidemocratic, however, as emerges from the brutal and irrational policies deployed against the indigenous aboriginal population.

The story concerns the destiny of Rayner, a doctor, caught up in the various tensions and challenges of being forced to live and work in a frontier town. Focusing on a critical juncture of his enforced sojourn, the novel presents emotional, cultural, social, and existential conditions which oblige Rayner to develop a fuller realization of vulnerability and mortality. Using Rayner as a lens, the book looks into many of the questions constituting contemporary cultural debate. But the weightiness of such questions is offset by the carefully controlled lushness of the author’s descriptive powers, and their dryness is relieved by the dramatic elements in the plot.

In theme and sense of place, TURNING BACK THE SUN bears a certain resemblance to Albert Camus’ THE PLAGUE, without possessing that work’s philosophical finesse. Nominated for the Booker Prize in England in 1991, TURNING BACK THE SUN is, however, an extremely readable combination of dramatic narrative and intellectual substance.