2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Adrian Duncan, Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Tuskar Rock Press

‘The Geometer Lobachevsky’ by Adrian Duncan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Tuskar Rock; 166 pages; 2022.

When I was sent by the Soviet state to London to further my studies in calculus, knowing I would never become a great mathematician, I strayed instead into the foothills of anthropology.

It’s not every day you read a novel that is about surveying, peat extraction, electricity generation and exile — so full points to Berlin-based Irish writer Adrian Duncan for originality!

A Russian emigré in Ireland

The Geometer Lobachevsky, which has been shortlisted for the 2023 Walter Scott Prize and the 2023 Kerry Group Novel of the Year, is a unique story about a Russian man, Nikolai Lobachevsky, who finds himself in Ireland helping survey a peatland bog in the Midlands.

It is 1950, and Ireland is embarking on a new era of state-powered electricity generation inspired by the Soviet’s expertise in this subject area.

I am standing on the edge of a bog. There is wind. And sky meeting arm-opening land.

But Nikolai finds the work challenging, not because he can’t do it, but because his Irish counterparts don’t seem to understand the fundamental problems associated with measuring a landscape that moves and swells depending on its ever-changing water content.

His attempts to add rigour and mathematical accuracy to the process are viewed as comical and at odds with normal Irish conventions which is to just get things done with as little effort as possible (hence the quote above which refers to “anthropology”).

Exiled on an island

Not that it matters much in the long run, for Nikolai goes into hiding when he receives a letter calling him back to Leningrad to take up a “special appointment”.

In the pit of my stomach bubbles a pool of bile; I want to take a match to this pool, light it and burn it way, then take the match to what remains.

He reinvents himself as a Polish ex-POW who has discovered God and moves to an island on the Shannon estuary. Here he falls in with four devoutly Catholic Irish families and immerses themselves in their lives.

I live on the northern edge of this island of barely 300 acres, amid the hedges and pastures, in a gatehouse once owned by a member of what they call ‘the landed gentry’.

Eventually, the pull of his family back home, and the desire to see their faces for one last time, has him return to Russia — against his better judgement.

Strange and evocative tale

The Geometer Lobachevsky is an extraordinarily strange yet eerily evocative novel. The descriptions of landscapes and places are lush and cinematic.

References to mathematics infuse the text to remind us that Nikolai — the fictional grandson of the famous 19th-century Russian mathematician of the same name — is a geometer who sees everything around him through the lens of shapes and angles and numbers. It’s a neat touch.

But for all the descriptive language, and even the political commentary (which seems to suggest there was incompetency, corruption and violence within Ireland’s electricity industry as it was being set up), the narrative lacks propulsion. I kept wondering where the story was headed and didn’t much care in the end whether Nikolai lived or died.

It’s a book of moods, intrigue and vivid imagery. But I need more than that to truly fall in love with a story.

This is my fourth book from the 2023 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year shortlist. I am trying to read them all (there are five) before the winner is named at the end of May.

14 thoughts on “‘The Geometer Lobachevsky’ by Adrian Duncan”

  1. What an intriguing premise for a novel, your review makes it sound interesting, what a pity it doesn’t quite live up to the promise.

    Last year I read the excellent book of essays on Ireland (long form essays, investigative journalism, literary reportage and visual narratives) The Passenger – Ireland – part of a series that Europa Editions has created on cities and countries of the world; there was an essay about the peat bogs which I found fascinating. Also a woman I know, now in her 80’s living in the US, told me of this collective activity they all participated in when she was a child, retrieving the peat they were entitled to for the family. It was a whole industry, albeit unsustainable.


    1. Oh, I will hunt out that book… it sounds fascinating.

      I have visited an industrial scale peat-extracting bogland in the Irish midlands and it was eye-opening. The machinery, the colour of the cut turf, the deep cuts through it that stretched as far as the eye could see… just fascinating.

      The smell of rural Ireland to me is the smell of burning turf fires… so evocative.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I bought his last one, the name of which escapes me now, when it was shortlisted for this same prize a couple of years ago but ran out of time to read it. I think all his novels have an engineering bent to them…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was thoroughly intrigued with the early part of your review, so was disappointed to read your somewhat negative conclusion. Nevertheless, I think this is a book I shall look out for – but not pay good money for the privilege of reading.


    1. It just meandered a bit too much for me (I still don’t fully get the purpose of all his interactions with the islanders, for instance) but the writing is beautiful and there’s a certain ambience that adds to the experience.

      Liked by 1 person

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