It’s a popup book for adults. A write-your-own, multi-faceted, not quite chronological book that will definitely require more than one reading. Ultimately, S. is unlike any book I have ever read. The collaboration between filmmaker J J Abrams and academic and author Doug Dorst is what gives such remarkable attention to detail and sophistication.
At its core, it is a mysterious conspiracy book, with a mix of murder and romance, as two strangers discover each other’s lives through the margins of a library book and uncover secrets and hidden mementos within the pages of a shared passion. S. follows Jenny and Eric as they delve deeper into The Ship of Theseus, the last book written by the elusive and unknown V. M. Straka, which is in itself an incredibly unusual tale of memory loss, new identities, corruption, and violence, mixed in with possible magic and elastic time.
What I instantly found intriguing was the question of authority that surrounds The Ship of Theseus which is discussed by the two main pen pals – it is a question that is constantly discussed with Shakespeare, and one that here begins to unravel a secret society that might just still be around today. The story within The Ship of Theseus is one of equal complexity, in a bizarre mix of fantasy, time travel, and historical references that almost pass you by.
The key to this book is the level of detail that has gone into its narrative and presentation – not only do you have the fully-written Straka text, but also a hugely complicated dialogue between the two readers over the course of months and years, their handwriting becoming increasingly familiar as you move further through the pages, time indicated by different colour ink and subtle changes in mood within the notes and annotations. That, coupled with photographs, newspaper cuttings, and letters that make a fat and incredibly satisfying hardback, make this unlike any adult fiction I have ever had the pleasure of picking up. It reminds me of the fairy handbooks I used to love as a child, uncovering tiny letters and packets of fairydust from cleverly illustrated pockets. But S. provides so much more than just novelty pull outs – it has something that intrigues you at every page, and the chance to read it in an entirely different way every time you open its cover.
It took me three months to get through it this first time round, only letting myself begin if I had a few hours stretching ahead of me where I could sit back and be fully absorbed, laying the evidence around me and getting my head around the complex chronology. I have no doubt I’ll need to read it several more times to fully understand what has been written. It is possible to read it in three ways; the first is how I tackled it, taking in both The Ship of Theseus and the annotations at the same time, turning over each page traditionally. A second option would be to read the printed text on its own, and absorb Straka’s work first and foremost – this is an option that I will do at some point as I’m not convinced I’ve completely grasped all that is concealed within its words. Another way of enjoying S. is to go through its annotations for themselves – they sometimes jump from chapter to chapter, following one colour pen after the other would pull together the character’s narratives in a more ordered fashion, and uncover their story separately but completely.
Ultimately, S. is an immensely innovative book both in its physical style and its creative interpretation. It is Inception as a book, a story within a story, within two worlds that are not our own, and finding even more worlds within those. This is the best I can do to portray its intricacy and density – the only way to begin to understand it, is to pick it up yourself and see what you find.