Literary surrealism at its most profound, The Ascent of Isaac Steward follows one man's journey into his own mind as he struggles to come to terms with the trauma that has reshaped his life.
A year on from the car crash in which his wife Rebekah and son Esau were killed and his other son Jacob left in a coma, Isaac Steward has suppressed every memory of that fateful day. Yet fate seems determined to make him remember, driving Isaac deeper and deeper into himself. Slowly, dysfunction builds on delusion, as childhood memories compete with a persona he has fabricated to regress to an earlier, happier time. Violence, death and destruction result as Isaac gradually loses his grip on reality. His half-brother Ishmael tells him that he must return to the wood at his childhood home, to a tree he called The Dandelion Tree, if he is ever to be reunited with Rebekah. But as he descends further, he starts to question his own existence.
After a car crash leaves the protagonist, Isaac, bereft of his wife, Rebekah, and sons Jacob and Esau, French's debut confronts a classic problem: how to render an unreliable narrator and his "ark nightmares of the mind" in ways that: clearly delineate shifts between lucidity and delusion without condescending to the reader; capture the effects (from repetitions and fixations to sensory distortions) with believability rather than indulgence; and avoid clich . French, unfortunately, does not provide Isaac with a strong counterpoint, preventing readers from empathizing. The best works on mental illness, after all, often include a baseline of normalcy from which to gauge the extent of what has been lost. Instead, he immediately immerses his readers in a disorienting, hallucinatory world, revealing Isaac's mind as a site for convoluted scenes populated with figures partly based on those he had known in real life, occasional Biblical allusions, as well as flashbacks, discursions, and a hodgepodge ranging from "temporal prostitutes" to a recurring memory of Punch and Judy. The resulting exercise in selective memory, while ambitious, never quite coheres, and this eccentric tale of madness may be best suited to fans of experimental forms.