Friday, October 19, 2012

Book Review: 'Breakthrough' by Richard Cowper

1 / 5 Stars

‘Breakthrough’ was first published in 1967 in hardcover; this Ballantine paperback (218 pp.) was issued in July 1969. The oustanding cover illustration is by Steele Savage.

[‘Richard Cowper’ was the pseudonym of the British author John Middleton Murry, Jr.]

It’s the Summer of 1964, and on the campus of Hampton University in England, newly hired English professor Jimmy Haverill befriends a fellow professor, ‘Dumps’ Dumpkenhoffer.

An American, and something of an eccentric, Dumps runs the Parapsychology Research Department, a unit housed in an older building on the campus. Haverill visits the parapsychology laboratory and witnesses students engaged in experiments reminiscent of those conducted by J. B. Rhine at Duke University in the 1940s; i.e., students are asked to guess which of five symbols are printed on the face of 25 playing cards. Correctly guessing the identity of a certain percentage of the cards may be taken as an indicator of some form of ESP.

Only half-serious about the concept, Haverill has a go at the psy ability test, and to Dumps’s astonishment, performs unusually well. Does Haverill have genuine parapsychological powers ? Perhaps – but the plot deepens when an attractive coed, Rachel Bernstein, also displays considerable aptitude at the symbol-guessing test. It appears that there is some sort of ‘psychic’ link between Haverill and Bernstein.

In due course, the two test subjects progress from acquaintances to romantic partners. Along with this progression comes a realization that the two of them are capable of additional psychic powers, including out-of-body experiences, some of which involve mysterious dreamscapes, and the presence of entities from what may be another dimension.

As Rachel Bernstein becomes more engrossed in these strange phenomena, it’s up to Dumps to discover a way to understand the connection between the two worlds, before a psychic implosion threatens Rachel's sanity - and even her life.

‘Breakthrough’ was one of Cowper’s early novels, and as such, it’s unremarkable. It’s really more of a romance novel, than a sf novel.

The narrative moves at a very slow pace, and centers on the emotional interactions of the main characters, rather than the parapsychological phenomena which occupy the backstory.

Cowper devotes most of his narrative to conversational exchanges, which often feature first-person narrator Haverill using words and phrases from British slang that were painfully outdated even at the time of writing. (For example, readers will quickly tire of Haverill’s use of ‘old thing’ as a term of affection for his girlfriend).

These conversational exchanges are reasonably well-written, and signal that in this regard, Cowper is a capable author. But in the absence of a compelling plot, they alone cannot make up for the novel’s shortcomings.

In short, ‘Breakthrough’ is rather a dull and unimaginative novel, and even Cowper completists will find little to engage them here. Better things were to come from this author as his writing career progressed.

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