It’s a rare book indeed that doesn’t transport you far away from the everyday, taking you on a richly imaginative journey, whether it’s into someone’s life, their innermost thoughts or to magical places that defy the intervention of the ordinary.
It’s one of the great, abiding joys of reading.
The particular delight of Sean Lusk’s The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudsley is that it manages to be all those things in one captivatingly alive book, marrying many of the staples of life such as great grief, loss, joy and first love with a story that’s thrillingly expansive and rich with intrigue and set in mid-eighteenth century London, Europe and the glitteringly exotic climes of Ottoman-era Constantinople.
It’s great appeal lies in the fact that while there are elements of the fantastical – the title speaks to the eponymous young protagonist’s ability to divine the soul and future life course of a person simply by touching them – and the expansively imaginative, it is also content to spend much time as needed with its characters, allowing them to tell their story without hurry or interruption and with full emotional effect.
Thus, we quickly get to know Zachary and his dad Abel, a man who makes exquisitely detailed clockwork automata, that are both beautiful and functional, and those that quickly become a found family of sorts – avowedly independent Grace Morley, who is drawn in, along with her infant daughter Leonora ( who becomes like a sister to Zachary) when tragedy strikes the Cloudsley family, Samuels, the family’s butler and Tom, a woman who begins work in Abel’s workshop dressed as a man and makes powerfully and affectingly clear that she is most definitely a he, in an age when this is far from the done thing. (What’s wonderful with this trans character is that, some initial lack of surety about how to approach him aside, everyone embraces him and accepts him unreservedly on his terms throughout the book.)
“She and Abel spend the next few days in an awkward dance, the one advancing a step and the other retreating. They are polite, without ever seeming to quite see one another as they did on that first day.
Abel is away in the workshop much of the day, nd Frances begins to think it might not be so difficult to persuade him that it will be best for Zachary to come home with her to Tring. If needs be Mrs Morley and her noisy daughter with her spotty face and bilious inclination can come too.” (P. 49)
This gathering together of disparate souls, which also includes Abel’s aunt-in-law, Frances, who’s a rich, feisty independently minded woman who delights in challenging convention, is what gives The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudsley its sizably moving beating heart.
Embracing a queer sensibility which the novel joyously folds into its world without ever treating it as something Other – if you are a queer reader, like this reviewer, you will find much to love about Lusk’s refreshingly heartwarming normalising of queer elements in a straight world, something society could definitely learn from – The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudsley seizes life with carpe diem gusto and celebrates how, even in the face of grief, loss and pain of all kinds, life can still prevail.
It’s not glib about it – in the mid-1700s with war raging on the continent, plagues surging through cities at a murderous pace, and power struggles aplenty, glibness is a luxury few can afford – but does elevate family, connection and the lengths people will go to safeguard that (not all of it good) far above the troubles of the world, all of which is infused with a sparkling magicality that is both otherworldly and groundedly human with Zachary unsure whether his gift is a blessing or a curse.
Whatever it may be, it changes his world considerably, being the reason why he is able to escape terrible misfortune on more than occasion and leading him to the greatest discovery of his life – that men, not women, are the spark that lights the fuse of his nascent sexuality.
His gradual realisation that he is not only gifted with the abilities beyond those of normal people – not only can he sense inner thoughts and future events but he’s prodigiously intelligent – but that he is different too in those to whom he is sexually attracted to is handled as poetically and intimately as everything else in The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudsley which even in its darkest moments sings with prose full to bursting with a love of words and the mellifluous sound they make as much as the beautifully enrapturing stories they set in train.
This marriage of exquisite, deeply emotionally resonant writing and a story so immersive that you feel, rather happily, like you are living in it and not just reading it, imbues The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudsley with a lyrical quality that carries you through some pretty intense passages when it doesn’t seem to be guaranteed that Zachary or anyone in his wondrously dysfunctional but endlessly devoted found family will ever get the happy-ever-after they want or deserve.
Not every novel gets this right – some read so gorgeously that the story and any emotional impact is lost in it, while others prioritise storytelling with a utilitarian ferocity – but The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudsley is flawless in telling a beguilingly unusual but intrinsically human story that reads like a siren song of lusciously poetic construction.
It is, at every turn, even in the dark moments, a joy to read as a result.
“Ibrahim trots his horse over to where Zachary struggles to hold his own still. ‘You are very strange indeed, English-man,’ he says, stretching towards him and touching him lightly on the shoulder, almost a blessing. ‘Come!’ And he sets off at a canter, Zachary following, feeling odder all the time, and very much wishing he were someone else; someone without visions, someone who could life a gun and shoo an animal, someone whose father was not locked away or a lunatic or quite likely dead. He wishs all those things, watching Ibrahim riding ahead, his long, dark hair trailing out behind him like a mane, and wishes to be like him, or, more than that, something he does not fully know how to put into words, even those words that he keeps enfolded and secret within his churning mind.” (PP. 240-41)
At its considerable heart, The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudsley is a novel that examines, with great empathy and understanding what it means to be connected, not in a charming send a Christmas card once a year kind of way, but in an everything on the line fashion.
From the moment he is born to when he rides off, quite literally, into a figurative Egyptian sunset, Zachary is faced with all kinds of impossible moments, and while there’s a lot of nurture and love in his life, it seems to be constantly under threat, especially when his father is lost, feared dead in Constantinople and Zack seems to be the only one capable of getting at the truth.
The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudsley, a lushly involving, resonant historical mystery with modern relevance and sensibility, sings the joys of loving so completely, regardless of how threatening or challenging life may be, that every moment feels epic even in its mundanity, every connection vibrantly necessary and every threat to those bonds a time to see how far you will go to save and uphold them.
Sure, Zachary, and those close to him have a certain magicality at their disposal, but while this helps them face up to some considerable challenges, it doesn’t make everything suddenly better, and much of The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudsley, which sings with love, beauty and hope despite the pain and loss, is devoted to how you battle through, and hopefully come out the other side, when everything seems arrayed against you, seemingly ready to take everything you value away.