a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Cliff Walk (1987)
Margaret Dickson

This novel which alternates between being a melancholy character study and thriller, tells the story of a woman named Crelly, from her childhood in a family torn apart by abuse and tragedy, to the separation from her husband and the violent events that bring them together again.

The character Crelly Kemp is said to be named after “the wife of a famous mathematician” because her father was a math teacher. I’m supposing the author must be referring to the historical Crelly Kemp, the fiance of the algebraist Abel. However, this seems like a very strange thing to me; I cannot quite imagine why the author chose to do this, and moreover, I don’t believe that Crelly Kemp and Abel were ever married.

More mathematics enters the story when we meet John, Crelly’s husband to be. He is singled out by a teacher for his mathematical ability and groomed into a fine mathematician, or so we are told. That he is a professional mathematician does not seem particularly essential to the plot or serve any literary purpose. When their marital troubles begin, John loses himself in his computations...though it could just as easily have been any other type of work as far as I can tell.

Some explicit mathematics is described and there are some specific references to the mathematicians Gauss and Kummer. However, to put it bluntly, it is quite clear from reading the book that the author does not really know much mathematics. This does not mean that the book has no literary merit, and I hope nobody feels that I am being too harsh in this criticism. However, it is the purpose of this Site to look at the mathematics in the fiction. So, I feel obligated to point out that unlike some other works which demonstrate a real knowledge and appreciation of mathematics on the part of the author (sometimes learned specifically for the writing of the book), this book does a very poor job of presenting mathematics and mathematicians. In the mathematics that is described, Dickson seems unable to differentiate between a proof and a computation. Perhaps many people believe that a proof is nothing but a long computation, but I would hope that in choosing to write a book about a mathematician the author could learn enough avoid such misconceptions. Also, she refers to “ideal numbers” as if they were a generalization of the real numbers (perhaps using this as an alternative to the imaginary numbers either intentionally or unintentionally).

A low point for the book mathematically occurs when John is being rescued from a deadly situation, having lost a good deal of blood, and climbing a rope ladder to safety. Before climbing, he asks his rescuer how many rungs the ladder has. “About thirty” is the reply. Once at the top, however, John corrects him: there were actually thirty-two rungs. I presume this is somehow related to his mathematics, but no mathematician that I know, and I doubt even number theorists with a great interest in the integers such as Ramanujan, are quite that obsessed with trivial questions of counting in the world around them. Again, the mathematics is clearly not the main point of the book, and I think it is a fine book for anyone who can read about child abuse and child pornography without finding it as completely unpalatable as I do.

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Works Similar to Cliff Walk
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Orpheus Lost: A Novel by Janette Turner Hospital
  2. The Sea of Trees by Gus Van Sant (director) / Chris Sparling (Writer)
  3. Mefisto: A Novel by John Banville
  4. Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda
  5. The Solitude of Prime Numbers [La Solitudine dei Numeri Primi] by Paolo Giordano
  6. The Geometry of Sisters by Luanne Rice
  7. The Infinite Tides by Christian Kiefer
  8. The Steradian Trail by M.N. Krish
  9. The Hollow Man by Dan Simmons
  10. Hapgood by Tom Stoppard
Ratings for Cliff Walk:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
1/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)

MotifRomance, Math Education,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)