The Invisible Mile by David Coventry – 2015

Invisible MileWhat a breath-taking book!  Coventry has seamlessly inserted a rider into the historical Australia / New Zealand Ravat-Wonder-Dunlop cycling team that took part in the 1928 Tour de France.  The first English-speaking team to take part, they rode in one of the toughest races in the history of the race.  And Coventry leaves nothing out from their gruelling experiences: “to drop is to die” – and the (even then) heavy reliance on drugs to endure.  But The Invisible Mile isn’t really about the Tour de France – it is the quest of one man to make sense of the recent war and his post-war experiences – a pilgrimage: “But I hunt it out.  I look for it everywhere.”   He was too young to fight but his brother went, and he co-opts his brother’s horrendous wartime experiences as his own for a while.  The relationship between the brothers has been fraught, as the shock of their sister’s death leads them to find blame in each other to make sense of it.  As we follow our rider through the Tour – a metaphor in itself as it is a race that is ridden in teams but measured in individual achievement – we slip into the stream of his thoughts and his perceptions, often warped by drugs and grief.  We eavesdrop on conversations he has with the ghost of a rider (who is still alive and injured in a previous town), and their talk is as real or unreal as the conversations he has with his team mates, people he meets along the way, or the mysterious woman who follows the race, providing drugs and intrigue throughout – for “Some part of you, it is always turning into a ghost.”  The focus of the narrative goes from the microscopic of torn skin and broken bones to the vast dioramas of the trenches imagined from the air, the stones of Carnac, the discovery of Troy: “That resonance of the past with the now, is that what we call history?”  Just as a rider is alone and isolated amongst a field of other riders, individuals are real but defenceless against the onset of war, history and the re-drawing of maps.  The speed that men turn into monsters: “Count the weeks on your hand”, and it is only in retrospect that we seem to have a choice: “We’re only ever half here anyway.”  Our rider struggles to find a line through his own memories and experiences, “… it is not time that holds memories but something quite other.  Hope, love, blind anger.  Such things.”  And parts of the book are heart breaking – the woman recounting the madness in Belgium as she fled; the description of the impact of the death of a loved one, when shared memories, those that only exist between those two people, are lost, “Memory that goes; this is the longest, deepest pain.”  Our rider finds some solace along the way, camaraderie, human touch, “Talk and how talk shifts the unknown into the real.  How real we seem when conversation repurposes the mundane for tasks of rehabilitation.”  But when he realises that his words might had led to more pain even talk fails.  The Invisible Mile is a wonderful achievement, at times quite sublime.  I found some of the prose a bit purple early on: “His own eyes are quite distant, their whites bloodshot with coffee and sugar and a hundred varying queries.”  “She speaks a fine English, though the accent leaves its trace like a snail’s trail over glass.”.  But this soon fell away as we hit the road, and although a gruelling ride it is more than worth the effort.

 

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