Gathering Evidence

Martin MacInnes

Atlantic, £12.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

Inverness-born Martin MacInnes’s debut novel, Infinite Ground, was shortlisted for the Saltire Awards, its metaphysical treatment of a man’s inexplicable disappearance evoking descriptions like “Borgesian” and “Kafkaesque”.

With the publication of Gathering Evidence, we can add the term Ballardian, such is its unsentimental eye, the apocalyptic dread sewn from the outset and the sense of its protagonists being reshaped by forces beyond their understanding.

It records the experiences of a couple, John and Shel, who spend the bulk of the novel apart. While Shel joins a team sent to a corporately-owned nature reserve to investigate the deaths of two bonobos, software designer John stays behind, suffering an injury on the building site of their future home which puts him out of commission for several weeks.

An ominous air has already been cast over proceedings by the prologue, which tells of the creation of an app, called Nest, which monitors its users’ activities down to the smallest detail. People become gradually more obsessed with it, until the app becomes a religion dedicated to analysing billions of readings to discern the ultimate truth. What this has to do with the story that follows isn’t made explicit, but it sets up an unease which is further deepened by mysterious fog, failing phones and a sense of being watched.

John is confined to a permanently fogbound house to recuperate from his injuries, remembering nothing about the incident that caused them, only what a doctor tells him on his daily visits. With no phone or wi-fi, and forbidden to drive, John is disoriented, unable to trust what he sees and hears, and he’s further distracted by a film of mould spreading across the walls and surfaces.

Shel, meanwhile, is in even more trying conditions, living in a nature reserve alongside a colony of bonobos, aware only of what the corporation that owns it, Westenra Ecology and Biodiversity Group, wants her to know. She and her team are methodically exploring the possibility that the bonobos were killed by an infection, and their fear of introducing any contaminant into the apes’ habitat and causing disruption to the natural order reaches paranoiac proportions.

Causality is one of Gathering Evidence’s preoccupations. Shel has a tendency to overthink the repercussions of her actions, while John, back home, fancies that he might reconstruct his memories by studying his surroundings and working backwards.

But MacInnes also dangles elements suggesting the presence of non-human intelligence just outside the limits of our perception: vast subterranean fungus networks and Shel’s observation of the “close structural similarity of psilocybin and serotonin ... as if little pieces of mind existed underground”.

Then there's her fear of being invaded by a cerebral virus, the appearance of unexpected mathematical patterns in nature, the misguided but logical behaviour of a smart fridge. But rather than presenting them in the manner a science fiction dystopia, Gathering Evidence works more like a ghost story, a novel of ideas whose allusiveness and vaguely-defined foreboding give it an unsettling power.