This is a story of time, universe, love affair and New York. The ship of Fools, a Jew, a diamond, a dream. A working class boy, a baby, a river. The sub-atomic joke of unstable matter…
Alice is a British physicist on her way to a research job at The Institute for Advanced Studies, New Jersey, USA. She makes her passage on the QE2 as a guest lecturer. On board she meets Jove, short for Giovanni, one of the most respected quantum physicists in the world (“Does time wear a watch?”). He is a confirmed Lothario, and the two soon begin an affair. In New York, Alice meets Jove’s wife Stella, and they become lovers. Alongside this triangle are the stories of Stella’s parents, who fled Nazi Germany, a decision made all the more difficult when one was a German and the other a Jew. Parallel to their lives are the lives of Alice’s parents – her father a working class boy made good from the dockyards of Liverpool, her mother, an Irish beauty. Then there is Alice’s grandmother, Bible-fearing, tough, still going out to work in her nineties, a kind of mythological creature, a worker of small miracles.
This is a miracle sort of a book – the miracles of the universe, revealed through science, and human miracles made possible through love. There are two extraordinary miracles, outside of commonsense and gravity, but if you want to find out what they are, you’ll have to find out for yourself. Sorry, but with miracles, that’s the only way.
Why did you want to write about quantum physics?
I was interested in it. Science fascinates me and I’ve taken New Scientist for years. All of my books are preoccupied with time – it starts right back in Oranges in the Deuteronomy section. In Sexing the Cherry I use time vertically, not just horizontally, and in Gut Symmetries I wanted to explore the dimensionality of time. How do we understand time? What happens to the past? Does the future already exist? These are questions the book deals with, not because I hope to answer them, but as a way of adding to the puzzle.
More love affairs, more married women?
Triangles are so much more fascinating than straight lines. It’s a geometry thing.
Just maths then?
No. The human heart is my territory. Gut Symmetries is about all kinds of relationships – between parents and children, children and grandparents, husbands and wives, friends, as well as sexual affairs whether heterosexual or queer. I write about love because it’s the most important thing in the world. I write about sex because often it feels like the most important thing in the world. But I set these personal private passions against an outside world – sometimes hostile, usually strange, so that we can see what happens when inner and outer realities collide.
What about the title?
It’s a play on words. GUT stands for Grand Unified Theory – the theory of everything science wants to discover – and it’s gut as in gut instinct, the feelings that lead us on much more than we like to admit. Symmetries, well, it’s the search for a perfect parallel universe, the one just like ours but without the problems. I suppose that’s what we look for when we fall in love…
They were letting off fireworks down at the waterfront, the sky exploding in grenades of colour. Whatever it is that pulls the pin, that hurls you past the boundaries of your own life into a brief and total beauty – even for a moment – it is enough.