By Christopher Priest

St. Martin's. 393 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Charles Platt

In August 1987 a man named Michael Ryan ran amok with a Kalashnikov rifle in the sleepy little town of Hungerford, England, killing 14 people and wounding 15 more. This was a singular, unprecedented event in a nation where guns are rarely owned and even the police are mostly unarmed. By chance, British author Christopher Priest drove through Hungerford that day, probably at the moment when the gunman was under siege in a school at the edge of town. When Priest realized afterward how close he had been to the event, it made an indelible impression on him. "I hadn't much idea how I wanted to write about my marginal experience," he stated later, "but even so the compulsion to do so would not go away."

More than a decade passed before he found a way to turn his compulsion into a novel, The Extremes, which examines a massacre in the imaginary small town of Bulverton, clearly modeled on Hungerford. To his credit, Priest does not exploit the tragedy with any hint of sensationalism. Instead of focusing on the horror of the murders themselves, he explores their subsequent impact -- on friends and relatives in a small community, and on any caring person who sees nightmarish images on the evening news.

The novel describes the personal quest of Teresa Simons, an American who grew up on a U.S. Air Force base in Britain. After relocating to the United States, Simons has been trained as an FBI agent, has married another agent, and has found some contentment in life -- until her husband is killed by a Texas gunman on a rampage. When she realizes that this has occurred, by chance, on the very same day as the British massacre, she visits Bulverton to study and absorb every detail, hoping somehow that if she understands the town's collective grief, she may exorcise her own.

The small British town and its inhabitants are depicted with impeccable realism. Yet Priest also plays games with reality. Despite the novel's contemporary flavor, he postulates the availability of a procedure that uses microscopic implants to stimulate all five senses, creating an experience that's indistinguishable from the real world. Since this "Extreme Experience" has become available commercially, Teresa Simons is able not only to visit Bulverton itself but to live through a recreation of the Bulverton massacre. She goes back to it repeatedly, interacting with the events, trying each time to affect their outcome.

Priest seems to be suggesting that some incidents are so big -- so extreme -- we may never come to terms with them. And he suggests we may wasting our time, or even courting disaster, if we look for too much meaning in life. The Extremes is crowded with ironies -- such as the fate of Simons's husband, who was pursuing a project to predict the behavior of murderers when he failed to foresee the act of the gunman who killed him. The book also is populated with coincidences and unresolved questions -- including Simons's childhood experience with an imaginary twin playmate, whom she "killed" by firing a handgun from her father's collection. Could this have been a real child whose murder was concealed by her parents, or was the other girl merely an image of Teresa Simons reflected in a mirror? She can never reach a definite answer.

Her strange, intense journey may frustrate some readers who would prefer a more clearly defined end point. On the other hand its mystery creates its own form of fascination, and Teresa Simons seems vital and real partly because her problems are not easily managed. Also, while she finds frustration rather than fulfillment, her spirit is so strong and her character is portrayed with such depth and empathy that the ultimate experience of sharing her quest is revelatory rather than depressing.

Priest's previous novel The Prestige won the World Fantasy Award. The Extremes tackles a more challenging theme with great insight and maturity; it should find equal acclaim.

Charles Platt is a contributing editor of Wired magazine.