Adam Thorpe 1956-
French-born English novelist, poet, playwright, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Thorpe's career through 2003.
An accomplished poet and novelist, Thorpe debuted on the literary scene with his verse collection Mornings in the Baltic (1988), which was short-listed for the Whitbread Award. While his poetry utilizes accessible and formal language, Thorpe's fiction is decidedly dense and complex. His acclaimed first novel, Ulverton (1992), is a postmodern pastiche that relates the history of a fictional English town over three centuries. In subsequent novels, including Still (1995), Pieces of Light (1998), and Nineteen Twenty-One (2001), Thorpe continues his exploration of difficult thematic material and unconventional narrative forms examining the problematic aspects of artistic creation, historical memory, language, and civilization.
Born in Paris, France, Thorpe spent a majority of his childhood travelling around the world with his family, residing in Lebanon, India, Cameroon, and England. His parents, Sheila Greenlees and Bernard Naylor Thorpe, met while his mother was working for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Paris and his father, a World War II veteran of the Royal Air Force, was Station Manager for Pan-Am Airlines in Brussels. Thorpe graduated from Marlborough, an English public school, and enrolled at Magdalen College, Oxford. At Magdalen, he studied with such noted scholars and poets as John Fuller, Emrys Jones, and Bernard O'Donoghue, earning his bachelor of arts with first class honors in English in 1979. Thorpe continued his education at the Desmond Jones School of Mime, studying mime and physical theatre. He co-founded the Equinox Travelling Theatre in 1979 and toured the Berkshire-Wiltshire area of England with the company from 1980 to 1986, writing adaptations of local folklore and performing with mime, puppets, and actors. The theatre troupe performed on local stages and schools, often conducting drama workshops for children. Thorpe and his co-performers were awarded the Time Out Mime Street Entertainer of the Year Award in 1984. While working with Equinox, Thorpe taught physical theatre at East London College from 1983 to 1987 and lectured in English at Polytechnic of Central London from 1987 to 1990. He married Joanna Wistreich, a teacher, in 1985, and moved to France to raise their three children. In 1985 Thorpe received the Eric Gregory Award, presented to promising young poets. Since the publication of Mornings in the Baltic, Thorpe has released two additional poetry collections, Meeting Montaigne (1990) and From the Neanderthal (1999). Thorpe contributes regularly to newspapers and magazines such as the Observer and Poetry Review. His first novel, Ulverton was nominated for the Booker Prize and won the Winifred Holtby Prize for best regional novel of 1992.
Mornings in the Baltic is a collection of fifty-eight poems whose subjects range from personal experiences and observations to English history and rural industry. Employing a mixture of obscure literary allusion, reflection, and colloquialism, Thorpe's poems present evocative juxtapositions, wry insights, and self-parody. His second poetry collection, Meeting Montaigne, consists of disparate meditations on religious, historical, and quotidian themes, including metal detectors, fax machines, and domestic relations. The title poem describes a visit to the former library of the French essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. From the Neanderthal is similarly concerned with time and personal experience, as suggested by the title, which signals the collection's motif of ancestral linkages and extinction. The poems in this volume include lyrical meditations on English history, contemporary life, religion, and mortality set against the natural world and the human past. Contrary to his poetry, Thorpe's fiction is both experimental and dense, with a marked postmodern interest in ambiguity, language, memory, and the irrational. Designed as a reflection on the English experience from 1650 through 1988, the plot of Ulverton unfolds through the voices of simple, rural people, including shepherds, petty thieves, mothers, soldiers, and other historical archetypes. The novel follows three hundred thirty-eight years of local history in the fictional English town of Ulverton, presented in twelve linking sections, each occurring approximately thirty years after the previous one. The narrative structure of each section varies wildly, adopting such nontraditional prose forms as the transcript of a sermon, a farmer's calendar, a selection of letters, captions on a series of nineteenth-century photographic plates, memoirs, diaries, and even a screenplay for a documentary. Thorpe also modifies the dialect of each section to reflect the historical period and speaking voice of his characters, resulting in some passages that are barely literate. A wry humor infuses many of the sections, displaying Thorpe's preoccupation with colloquial language and community relations. Besides the progression of time, the twelve sections are linked not only through the physical space of Ulverton, but also through the familial lineage of the characters. For example, a strange disappearance from the first section is later resolved in the final section. Still, Thorpe's second novel, rejects many of the narrative forms used in Ulverton, most notably by abandoning straightforward chronology. Nearly six hundred pages long, the novel takes the form of a stream-of-consciousness rant from Rick Thornby, a failed English film director who now lectures to uninspired students in a college in Houston, Texas. Meanwhile, Thornby continues to work on his cinematic masterpiece, a film without images that lasts for twelve hours. The novel frequently plays on the multiple meanings of the word “still”—photographic images, tedium, noiseless, among others—to explore Thornby's psyche.
Pieces of Light returns to the town of Ulverton, this time contrasting the agrarian English countryside with the jungles of Africa. The book is structured as a mystery, though not in any conventional sense, since the true outcome of the plot remains ambiguous. As with a majority of Thorpe's fiction, the narrative techniques of the novel vary from section to section. The first part of the novel is presented as the memoir of Hugh Arkwright, who spends the first seven years of his life in Cameroon and views the lush African landscape as idyllic. His African friend, Quiri, teaches Hugh his language and cultural assumptions, which include stories of the distant past when human sacrifice was a part of tribal life. In the second part of the novel, much to Hugh's dismay, his mother takes him back to England to live with her brother and sister-in-law in Ulverton. Five years after his arrival in England, Hugh receives news that his mother has disappeared into the jungle, the mystery of which remains unresolved at the close of the novel. The third part is written as a series of diary entries by the now seventy-year-old Hugh. He stumbles upon an unopened trunk in his uncle's home and finds something that horrifies him. The fourth part picks up the story one year later, with Hugh in a mental institution, having gone mute since his unexplained discovery. On the advice of his therapist, Hugh corresponds with his mother to try to unravel the mystery of his nervous breakdown, but his attempts are unsuccessful. The final section of the novel consists of letters Hugh's mother wrote to her brother during her first two years in Cameroon. Pieces of Light ends with the reasons for Hugh's illness unresolved and the alarming possibility of his culpability in a murder. Nineteen Twenty-One is set in an isolated area of South Central England, the Chiltern Hills, during the 1920s. The protagonist, Joseph Munrow, is a would-be author who is unsuccessfully striving to write the definitive novel of the World War I era. Munrow's efforts to write ultimately succumb to his own ennui and the cultural emptiness of his time. Thorpe's first short story collection, Shifts (2000), explores how the workplace exerts a definite effect on one's way of life. The twelve stories examine a selection of laborers, all of whom practice a trade, such as a blacksmith, mechanic, and stonecutter. The stories use first-person narration and each character speaks in the technical jargon of their specialty. In 2003 Thorpe published No Telling, which follows the life of Gilles Gobain, a twelve-year-old boy living in Paris during the Student Riots of 1968. Gilles' family is filled with eccentric characters that have diametrically opposed political beliefs—his sister is a radical communist while his uncle is a right-wing conservative. Thorpe has also composed scripts for four radio plays for British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Radio including Just Not Cricket (1988), The Fen Story (1991), Offa's Daughter (1993) and An Envied Place (2002), as well as a stage play, Couch Grass and Ribbon (1996).
While Thorpe's poetry has been admired for its cultivated sensibility and lyrical poise, his novels have gained him both notoriety and esteem for their daring experimentalism. However, many critics have been divided regarding the success of Thorpe's use of atypical narrative forms. Some reviewers have favorably compared the language in Ulverton to James Joyce's Ulysses, while others have faulted the work as overly obtuse, digressive, and, in places, historically inaccurate. John Bilston has noted that, in Ulverton, “Thorpe manages to establish an agreeably oblique narrative interconnection between his dozen ‘chapters’, and this keeps the reader's attention, even through chunks of unwelcome prolixity.” Despite Ulverton's generally warm critical reception, Thorpe's second novel, Still has been widely considered his least successful work. Commentators have argued that the novel's chaotic prose makes deciphering Thorpe's thematic intentions impossibly difficult. Though Pieces of Light has been praised for its structure and allusive references, some critics have noted that the novel fails to deliver on the excellence of its opening sections, calling the denouement both confusing and disappointing. Pieces of Light has also been criticized for leaving important elements of plot and character unresolved, particularly because Thorpe structures the novel as a mystery. Both Nineteen Twenty-One and Thorpe's short fiction in Shifts have been critically well received, with reviewers commending Thorpe's ambition and virtuosity.
Just Not Cricket (radio play) 1988
Mornings in the Baltic (poetry) 1988
Meeting Montaigne (poetry) 1990
The Fen Story (radio play) 1991
Ulverton (novel) 1992
Offa's Daughter (radio play) 1993
Still (novel) 1995
Couch Grass and Ribbon (play) 1996
Pieces of Light (novel) 1998
From the Neanderthal (poetry) 1999
Shifts (short stories) 2000
Nineteen Twenty-One (novel) 2001
An Envied Place (radio play) 2002
No Telling (novel) 2003
(The entire section is 53 words.)
SOURCE: Wormald, Mark. “Delving Sensually.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4464 (21-27 October 1988): 1181.
[In the following review, Wormald describes Mornings in the Baltic as an “ambitious first collection,” noting that the quality of the poems remain inconsistent throughout the work.]
Mornings in the Baltic is an ambitious first collection, not least in its scope. Adam Thorpe delivers fifty-eight poems, and if some of them are slight, none lacks substance. The title-page hints at the range: “The Landing, c.1000 BC” follows “Zebra, A” and precedes “A Short History of the Human Species”; other titles point towards personal memories, while yet others parade literary sources. “The Therapeutic Masseur”, “Bachelors” and “Windows” seem to crouch in the shadow of Larkin; “Neighbours” and “Witness” echo recent offerings from the large and small screens.
That the poems themselves depend on their titles and the expectations these foster, without ever seeming merely derivative, is a tribute to Thorpe's wry, intelligence. Literary allusion, unashamedly esoteric at times, at others self-parodic, is a part of his method, and finds its way into situations defiantly resistant to the poet's educated sensibility. The opening lines of “Egg Packing Station, Wiltshire” are typical of the conflict he repeatedly encounters:
(The entire section is 415 words.)
SOURCE: Mackinnon, Lachlan. “Seriously Thoughtful.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4559 (17-23 August 1990): 871.
[In the following review, Mackinnon criticizes the “technical uncertainty” of the poems in Meeting Montaigne.]
Adam Thorpe's second collection [Meeting Montaigne] has as its title-poem an account of visiting Montaigne's tower, now devoid of “the books he'd thumb through the summers / of the 1580's, in retired Dordogne”. What Montaigne “wrote on the rafters” the poet's “schoolboy Latin cannot crack and / rubbing my neck I reflect on decline, / not declension”, the faint grandiosity of “reflect” and the easy verbal slide are troublingly characteristic of this book. Reflecting that Montaigne's “thousand volumes spined his thoughts / in buff leather, smelling of a library”, Thorpe tells us that a library smells like a library. This is not news.
Thorpe is perhaps at his best in religious meditation. “Here and There” observes that “where the holy places survive / they do so under tat, alive / only in fits, obscured by coaches”. “Tat” is inertly unvivid, though, and the closing assertion that to have visited holy sites is “proof we'd searched / further from a life that's furled, mostly” is weakened by the unexpected “furled”, which takes too much thought to expound. Even the most thoughtful of Thorpe's poems have this verbal...
(The entire section is 659 words.)
SOURCE: Taylor, D. J. “Voices of the Village People.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 200 (1 May 1992): 38.
[In the following review, Taylor faults Thorpe's “tiresome” and implausible attempts at constructing a nontraditional narrative in Ulverton.]
In outline, Ulverton must have seemed like a very good idea indeed. A Wessex village seen through 350 years of snapshot history. A series of fugitive, fictional voices set to illumine the rural microcosm, with a grander national pageant glimpsed fitfully in the distance. A discriminating poet's eye (Thorpe's Mornings in the Baltic was shortlisted for a Whitbread Poetry Prize) to weld the fragments together. The blurb talks about “traditional English pastoral” meeting the postmodern, and the stage seems set for a prose version of Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns: history, myth and self-awareness cunningly aligned with maximal sleight-of-hand.
And it is a good idea, up to a point. For a start, Thorpe's protagonists are carefully chosen. In a clumsier pair of hands, the novel might have begun with an Elizabethan cartographer, say, or a Caroline poet, and died at birth of irretrievable archness. As it is, the first contribution comes courtesy of a mid-17th-century shepherd hailing the return of a deserter from Cromwell's Irish campaign (“At Drogheda … I shook his hand, like this”) whose wife has married...
(The entire section is 637 words.)
SOURCE: Bilston, John. “Chronicles of Albion.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4649 (8 May 1992): 20.
[In the following review, Bilston offers a generally favorable assessment of Ulverton, commenting that the novel is “by turns sad, amusing and mildly acerbic.”]
In Ulverton, Adam Thorpe highlights a selection of events and characters over a period of three and a half centuries. The eponymous village where these chronicles are set is located on the Wessex Downs, and is meant to represent Albion in microcosm. National and international events of historical importance such as Enclosure, the turbulent first appearance (and systematic smashing) of agricultural machinery and the bombing of Hiroshima, are considered from the viewpoint of English ruralism. The book is divided into twelve chronological sections, each one written, with competence and credibility, in a different style. This makes for a pleasing textural variety compounded of straightforward story-telling, tap-room reminiscence, letters, diary entries, a sermon, some ruminative captions for a set of nineteenth-century photographic plates, a garrulous bucolic monologue and a television documentary complete with camera directions (“PULL BACK AND PAN L OVER GRASS TO STONE CROSS ON HUMMOCK, ZOOM IN ON FADED INSCRIPTION …”).
This is not a compact novel. Some passages seem simply to go on for longer than is...
(The entire section is 847 words.)
SOURCE: Clark, Ross. “A Tale of One Village.” Spectator 268, no. 8549 (16 May 1992): 28.
[In the following review, Clark argues that certain sections of Ulverton are more successful than others, lamenting the novel's lack of historical verisimilitude and authorial explanation.]
Adam Thorpe belongs firmly to the ‘selection box’ school of literature: he presents us not with a single narrative [in Ulverton] but with a dozen pieces of loosely associated writing, varying from a farmer's journal to a series of love letters to a script for a television documentary. Together they tell half the story of Ulverton, a fictitious Wessex village, from the year 1650 to the year 1988.
As with all selection boxes, one craves more of certain items but has no appetite for some of the others. By far the best piece is a journal of the year 1712 kept by a poor farmer with literary pretensions. In rude and hearty style he alternates his observations of the passing seasons and his assessments of new agricultural implements with tales of his sexual life. His wife, who beats him with a stick upon his orders, gradually goes mad; a result, he claims, of excessive bleeding during the birth of a stillborn child. Tired of her eccentricities, he begins an affair with his maid, provoked by the sight of her backside while she is pissing in the yard.
Also highly entertaining is the...
(The entire section is 775 words.)
SOURCE: Coe, Jonathan. “Palimpsest History.” London Review of Books 14, no. 11 (11 June 1992): 30-1.
[In the following excerpt, Coe commends Thorpe's narrative skill and characterizations in Ulverton, but finds fault in the novel's overriding authorial presence.]
In her recent collection Stories, Theories and Things, Christine Brooke-Rose was casting around for a generic term under which to classify such diverse novels as Midnight's Children, Terra Nostra and Dictionary of the Khazars, and came up with ‘palimpsest history’. What all of these books have in common is their interest in the recreation of a national history: a history which, in each case, has been erased or fragmented, subsumed beneath layers of interpretation, forgetting, writing and rewriting. If the genre has up until now seemed somehow alien to our own traditions, very much the product of something called ‘World Literature’, a kind of superleague of writers whose work is, above all, thoroughly (and enviably) internationalised, this may be because we have so far lacked a really distinguished English entry in the field. We have been dogged, perhaps, by an assumption that English history and the English landscape do not in themselves offer a broad enough canvas (rather in the way that whole generations of film critics have allowed themselves to be persuaded, on the basis of Truffaut's throwaway...
(The entire section is 1221 words.)
SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “The Eddies of Wessex.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (17 January 1993): 3, 12.
[In the following review, Eder praises the wide scope and compelling characterizations in Ulverton.]
We only see the wind by eddies of dust and raindrops and by the birds beating across it. Adam Thorpe strews 350 years of the shifting schemes, crafts, passions, ways of speech and walkabouts of an English village across an altering West Country landscape and social order. It allows us to believe that we have seen time.
Ulverton is a fictional village, and Ulverton is 12 fictional narratives. The place is set in what might variously be Dorset, Wiltshire or Berkshire; like Thomas Hardy, Thorpe calls it Wessex. The narratives are spaced from Cromwell's day to ours at roughly 30-year intervals.
Their time is not a thread, though, but an elastic band. Sometimes the world changes only moderately from one story to the next, and sometimes the change is vast. Between the 1830 hanging of John Oadam, a rural rebel who led his machinery-smashing fellows while wearing a crown of wildflowers, to the apparently contained words of a Victorian woman photographer in 1859, the planet might have jumped orbits.
The Ulverton stories are dazzlingly various: in voice, in the level of the tellers' awareness, in completeness of narration. In 1803, an old woodworker...
(The entire section is 1211 words.)
SOURCE: Banville, John. “Big News from Small Worlds.” New York Review of Books 40, no. 7 (8 April 1993): 22-4.
[In the following excerpt, Banville compliments Thorpe's writing in Ulverton as “rich, tough, [and] inventive,” though notes that the novel's final section is considerably weaker than the rest of the work.]
Adam Thorpe too stays close to a small place, in his case Ulverton, a fictional village on the Wessex Downs of England. Thorpe, who was born in 1956, was already known as a poet before he published [Ulverton], his first novel, which was highly praised when it appeared in Britain last year. It is a big, dense work which moves from 1650 to 1988 in twelve sections varying greatly in style and content. The first episode tells of the return to Ulverton of one of Cromwell's soldiers back from the Irish campaign. The narrator is a shepherd who first spies the ragged trooper in the cold of dawn:
He appeared on the hill at first light. The scarp was dark against a greening sky and there was the bump of the barrow and then the figure, and it shocked. I thought perhaps the warrior buried there had stood up again to haunt us. I thought this as I blew out the lanterns one by one around the pen. The sheep jostled and I was glad of their bells.
Gabby Cobbold, away at the wars for five years, had been...
(The entire section is 1215 words.)
SOURCE: Robinson, Marc. “Field Work.” New Republic 208, no. 17 (26 April 1993): 42-5.
[In the following review, Robinson lauds Thorpe's skillful evocation of historical detail in Ulverton.]
Adam Thorpe writes of tussocks and furze, of sarsens atop hummocks and coppices at the bottom of combes. When anxious, his creatures are “a-muck with fear”; those in despair are “husked of their souls.” Life, as it is lived here, is “field-hedged and scullery-encompassed.”
Ulverton is larded with this language of nature and work, as though Thorpe, an English poet, was determined to guard against undue metaphysics in his first novel. Speaking generously about certainties like the color of soil or the texture of crabgrass, he seems to be happily handling language rather than merely writing stories with it. Archaic words are sifted through new ones, then massed together to form clumps of observation. Rhythms of speech seem to correspond subtly with those of farm work, an artisan's labor or even the loping horses passing by. This meditative earthiness will be familiar to readers who know his two collections of poetry, Mornings in the Baltic and Meeting Montaigne. As he describes himself in an early poem, Thorpe is a writer “whose dreams [are] rural in an urban century.”
By gathering the strange-sounding words and tuning his prose to their rolling...
(The entire section is 2657 words.)
SOURCE: Filbin, Thomas. “Eurofiction, Interest Rates, and the Balance of Trade Problem.” Hudson Review 46, no. 3 (autumn 1993): 587-92.
[In the following excerpt, Filbin discusses current trends in European fiction and praises Ulverton for its “encyclopedic knowledge” of historical details.]
American fiction these days seems generally to have recovered from its bout with minimalism. Scorched earth prose which prefers epiphanies and resonances to themes and character exposition has largely run its course. Readers could only be expected to tolerate for so long antiheroes who dream of things that never were and ask, “Why bother?”, or who dream of nothing and say, “Turn the TV up, Rayette, ‘Wheel of Fortune's on.”
Novels being written by Americans now have advanced to somewhat higher ground. They often deal with family trouble, moving on or stepping back, and the burdens of one's history on the ability to live in the present. The book jackets attest to the fact that the authors studied or teach in university writing programs, have won awards and fellowships, and come with the highest recommendations of other members of the guild. This would imply they are not without gifts and the skills of the craft, but they are making what to me is a dubious strategy choice, namely of limiting themselves to observing quotidian reality without transcending it, staking...
(The entire section is 810 words.)
SOURCE: O'Toole, Laurence. “Cut!” New Statesman and Society 8, no. 349 (21 April 1995): 36-7.
[In the following review, O'Toole offers a negative assessment of Still, faulting Thorpe's prose as ineffective and “banal.”]
Imagine it's ten minutes to midnight, 31 December 1999, and you're stuck listening to the interminable ravings of a complete bore. You can't get free of him. The end of the century, and this fuming, bitter, twisted, pain-in-the-neck, totally has-been English movie director called Ricky won't stop talking: about his past, his loves, his movies, his many mistakes. What a terrible way to see in the new millennium.
Such is the would-be comedy at the heart of Adam Thorpe's new novel, [Still,] the successor to the infinitely praised Ulverton. As jokes go, it's sort of okay. For a brief while. But during nearly 600 pages of rambling, difficult, chaotic prose, the laughter dwindles. So, just to show he's no one-joke wonder, Thorpe hits us with another tickler. Ricky's latest masterpiece, which he describes in painstaking, tedious detail, is the all-time greatest cinematic bore: a big windy fart of a movie.
Ricky's fool, a ridiculous man, a quivering, teeming mess of mordant recall and bad feelings, cut off from England, that “old turd bobbing in the grisly sea” and holed up in Houston, Texas. He teaches film to airhead students...
(The entire section is 600 words.)
SOURCE: Shippey, Tom. “English Accents.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4803 (21 April 1995): 21.
[In the following review, Shippey criticizes the lack of authorial focus and compelling characterizations in Still, calling the novel a “584-page rant.”]
Still: it can mean an apparatus for distillation, as in Arbuthnot's Aliments (1735), “This fragrant Spirit is obtain'd from all Plants which are in the least aromatick, by a cold Still.” Or it can mean “Now … as formerly”, so Shakespeare. “Such is thy beauty still.” Its root or earliest meaning is as in “still waters run deep”, an old proverb and indeed an Old English proverb, “still waters often break the staithes”; in Beowulf, the dead dragon lies wundum stille, still from wounds. And of course it has come to mean the single frame of a film, displayed to give an idea (but only an idea, devoid of plot or narrative) of what the entire entertainment might be about.
Most of these senses are congenial to Adam Thorpe's second novel Still: the last most obviously, in that its narrator and centre is a film director and film critic, Rick Thornby, but the distillation idea also comes in as his experience is rendered down, vapoured off, condensed from aroma to fragrant spirit. Meanwhile, as so often in English novels, there is an overpowering feeling of continuity, of present growing...
(The entire section is 1152 words.)
SOURCE: Fowles, John. “The Sound of a Voice that Continues.” Spectator 274, no. 8703 (29 April 1995): 40.
[In the following review, Fowles compliments Still for its sense of irony and original narrative voice.]
I finished this brilliantly jumped second novel, the traditionally tough fence, of a writer whose first I had much admired three years ago, in foreign parts—to be precise, deep in the Alentejo of Southern Portugal, perched over a lake in the shade of an olive tree amid a landscape as full of spring flowers as it was of appropriately mocking hoopoes and cuckoos (you need only change one consonant to grasp what they really say). A cat among the cistus, I was purring. ‘Great’ is a foolish boomerang to throw at the living, yet here …
Especially if you take Still not only in its obvious cinematic sense, but that of ‘notwithstanding’, it makes a fitting stele to mark the end of this millennium and its unhappy final century. This is a prodigiously rich and allusive book, as alluring to any academic, as pandering to the natural ferret, as a bowl of cream to a hungry cat. It is outwardly the unfilmable script, far more imaginary than real, of a would-be English cinéaste, one Richard Arthur Thornby (RAT), currently lecturing in Texas on the cinema. He airs a hypothetical movie of both his own American present and his middle-class English family's past. The...
(The entire section is 1018 words.)
SOURCE: Todd, Tamsin. “Musing on the Millennium.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4974 (31 July 1998): 20.
[In the following review, Todd discusses the unconventional structure of Pieces of Light, praising the novel as “strongly plotted and a pleasure to read.”]
Retrospection anchors Adam Thorpe's work. His first novel, Ulverton (1992), an account of a fictional English ur-town, reconstructed 300 years of England's cultural history through a set of interlinking narratives. Still (1995), his second novel, was an exiled film director's retrospective on his life and failed career. Thorpe's talent for picking the telling detail and resonant historical voice was evident in both novels. Pieces of Light, his exhilarating third novel, re-examines two of the twentieth century's shaping forces—colonialism and war. The story centres on the protagonist, Hugh Arkwright's effort to reconcile his memories of his mother, who disappeared into the African jungle in the 1930s, with his later life in England. As in the previous novels, the story doesn't unfold conventionally.
The novel is told in three parts. The first is an evocative memoir of Hugh's childhood in Africa and his transposition, at age seven, to Ulverton. The prose here is gorgeous and compelling: “All around us the forest spoke, and a bright three-quarter moon rose. I made it huge and blinding with my...
(The entire section is 714 words.)
SOURCE: Crane, David. “Patches of Darkness.” Spectator 281, no. 8873 (29 August 1998): 27.
[In the following review, Crane praises the opening of Pieces of Light, but finds the rest of the novel disappointing.]
For the first 136 pages Adam Thorpe's new novel [Pieces of Light] seems just about as good as fiction gets. The book opens on a remote outpost of empire in 1920s Africa, and traces the emotional growth of a young boy from the first intense experiences of a jungle childhood to the cold and alien world of guardians and English prep school.
It is a measure of just how wonderfully good this part is that, in spite of the obvious differences of style and setting, the book it constantly brings to mind is Great Expectations. There is the same delicate awareness of a boy's fears and anxieties in both novels, the same sure feel for the ways in which the irrational guilts of childhood linger despotically on to sour and darken adult life.
But if Adam Thorpe's Hugh Arkwright conjures up images of Dickens's Pip, his handling of his character is entirely original. It might well have been possible to explore the same range of emotions in some tamer setting, but Thorpe's Africa acts as a terrifying amplifier to the boy's imaginative life, peopling it with leopard men and vengeful spirits, screwing anxieties to the pitch of fear, everyday uncertainties...
(The entire section is 643 words.)
SOURCE: Page, Ra. “Much Ado about Nothing.” New Statesman 127, no. 4405 (2 October 1998): 49-50.
[In the following review, Page offers a negative assessment of Pieces of Light, asserting that Thorpe's “gift of garrulousness” ultimately hurts the focus of the novel.]
How easy should modern literature be to read? Speeding through Adam Thorpe's leaden tome—[Pieces of Light,] a 500-page novel purporting to cover issues of war, colonialism, anthropology and self-administered pagan psychology—one can't help feeling it should be more difficult than this, more arresting and upsetting, with sweat to prove the toil worthy. Has every art become so public in its consumption, one wonders, that it must also be public, immediate and indiscriminate in its conception? Perhaps a law should be passed to make reading more taxing, a protectionist policy to cotton-wool the economy of the language, to inflate the currency of words and make them expensive for anyone born outside the language. In authentic Old Testament style, the rewards of literature should be bought with discomfort and pain; reading has suffered long enough from the perception that it's a benign, generically comforting hobby.
Yet with the publication of each novel, Thorpe is routinely lavished with preposterously glowing praise, as he was this time. His fast and fluent prose—a balancing act that sustains only...
(The entire section is 722 words.)
SOURCE: Jordan, Justine. “I'm Not Turning the Clock Back, I'm Taking It Off the Wall and Mending It.” London Review of Books 20, no. 21 (29 October 1998): 25.
[In the following review, Jordan lauds Thorpe's narrative skill in Pieces of Light, though cites shortcomings in the novel's overriding symbolism.]
‘You,’ the mother of six-year-old Hugh informs him [in Pieces of Light], ‘are the only white child in the whole of West and Central Africa, that I know of.’ The remote outpost of Empire, made up of a few crumbling concrete bungalows perilously perched between crocodile-infested river and ever-encroaching forest, had looked like Eden to the newly wed Arkwrights, fleeing the killing fields of the Great War with the noble colonial ideal of winning over the natives by example rather than terror. But it is no place to bring up an English child, especially one ‘born bush’ and already finding his metaphors in the pidgin English of the servants and his gods in jungle spirits and African fetishes rather than the cricket bats and Bibles of passing missionaries. So Hugh is exiled from his tropical paradise to the care of his aunt and uncle in ‘the land of letters and telegrams’, with only his homemade fetish packet and a sacred mark burned into his neck by the sympathetic houseboy for protection.
Miserable on the promised soft lawns of rural England, Hugh can...
(The entire section is 1932 words.)
SOURCE: Greening, John. “What's in the Dust.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5025 (23 July 1999): 24.
[In the following review, Greening compliments the underlying theme of “survival” found in the poems in From the Neanderthal.]
From the Neanderthal marks the return to verse of Adam Thorpe, best known as the author of Ulverton and two other novels. His poems patrol frontiers and thresholds in time, scanning the past through powerful lenses, sharing irrational fears, keeping their distance from real danger. In “The Exchange”, his daughter's concern at a wayside crucifix (“Why that man, he fall / in the water?”) is undermined by the father's amusement at her misunderstanding (“Well why they hung him up to dry, then?”); elsewhere, he sees a hot-air balloon's “tongue of fire” and is convinced it is ablaze; and in an extended poem about a rocky childhood landscape, even the lichen is “barely clinging to the world”.
“Ghosts” is the most memorable of all these border pieces, perhaps because Thorpe is here successfully reining in his novelist's skills and not wearing the heavy Anglo-Saxon boots of, for example, “Picking”. Thorpe loves Ted Hughes, but his natural style is a more “serviceable lightness”, nicely balancing monosyllables on the metre, while juggling alliterations:
If what slipped on their flesh was our...
(The entire section is 612 words.)
SOURCE: Clark, Alex. “Occupational Gambits.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5049 (7 January 2000): 19.
[In the following review, Clark praises Thorpe's subject matter and prose in Shifts, though criticizes his self-conscious preoccupation with technique and detail.]
The theme that links the twelve stories in Adam Thorpe's new book [Shifts] is a simple enough one. Work, the occupation that takes up most of the time of most people, that can be both enslavement and liberation, and that can accurately define or hopelessly obscure a personality or a life, becomes, in Thorpe's hands, the starting point for an examination of a dozen lives.
Thorpe avoids the more obvious temptations of the modern job; there is no e-commerce here, no computer programmer or personnel officer, no advertising guru or media whore. Glitziness is confined to a purveyor of luxury swimming pools, who is locked into a moral struggle over whether to sell her parched family farm for less than the going rate in order to please her dying sister, or whether to hang on for a buyer who will want one of her top-of-the-range models, complete with “slip-resistant slate surround and hardwood changing rooms”. Her choice will either send her religious sister to a happy death, or condemn her to eternal resentment and regret. The dilemma is elegantly explored in Thorpe's meticulous opposition of luxury and...
(The entire section is 723 words.)
SOURCE: Fern, Nicholas. “The Power of the Workplace.” Spectator 284, no. 8946 (22 January 2000): 36.
[In the following review, Fern praises the compelling characterizations in Shifts.]
When today's graduates enter the so-called ‘real world’, the first difference they notice is the divergence of their working persona from the one they are reluctantly forced to reserve for evenings and weekends. In this collection of stories by Adam Thorpe, [Shifts,] on the other hand, an account of an individual's working life is the best exegesis of his character. The approach succeeds because the writer of Ulverton has a fine ear for legend, but also, in part, because his stories are set in the days when jobs were still trades. There are no call-centres or sales conferences in these pages. The inanities of modern corporate life are largely ignored. This may be with good reason, for they are perhaps a fitting subject only for satire. Today's authors wisely prefer to look to history and foreign places for their inspiration rather than write about Love in the Time of Photocopiers.
Thorpe's stories show that the old days were quite recent, however. The collection opens with a vibrant monologue by a dustman at the end of his career. Speaking for the benefit of a young journalist, he recounts the routine, the camaraderie and the days when ‘something happened’. As he sits perched...
(The entire section is 561 words.)
SOURCE: Thorpe, Michael. “Cast Out of Eden.” World and I 15, no. 3 (March 2000): 278.
[In the following review, Thorpe discusses the narrative complexity of Pieces of Light.]
Pieces of Light is an intriguing, finely spun mystery, most aptly entitled. Readers are led on a long journey of remembering, along shadowy paths resembling those in a tropical forest whose canopy occasionally admits bits and pieces of light. In subject matter, alternating between “darkest” Africa and an England that, to borrow the words of Conrad's narrator in Heart of Darkness, is also “one of the dark places of the earth,” it is sometimes obscure. However, although in his closing acknowledgments Thorpe names “certain books that have travelled with [him],” the reader need not turn to those. Doing so would only authenticate some of Thorpe's more arcane themes and allusions, not solve the mystery. Paramount among the novel's themes is that of human sacrifice, throughout both the narrative and human history.
AFRICAN ‘GOLDEN AGE’
The first of the novel's five parts is a memoir by the narrator, Hugh Arkwright, of his early childhood in the British-administered part of the Cameroons. He is six when his story opens, in 1927, in remote Barmakum. He has never lived anywhere else and doesn't expect to. His world is African, and so is he. His closest companion is...
(The entire section is 2682 words.)
SOURCE: Beaumont, Matthew. “Corroded by a Culture of Futility.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5125 (22 June 2001): 21.
[In the following review, Beaumont offers a generally positive assessment of Nineteen Twenty-One, though notes that the novel's theme of futility is, to some degree, embodied in the work itself.]
According to Cyril Connolly, the “central concept of the nineteen-twenties” was futility. The years of the First World War were perceived by most of its contemporaries to be full of purpose; those of its aftermath seemed to many people, perhaps especially to those who were frantically embracing the culture of freedom promised by peace, simply forlorn. After the “war effort”, there was only a profound and diffusive sense of fatigue. The 1920s, to borrow a term of abuse favoured by Bentham's opponents a hundred years or so before, were “futilitarian”.
The word “futility” primarily refers to a sense of ineffectuality and fruitlessness. In one obsolete meaning of the word, however, it also describes a pointless preoccupation with trifles, with things of no purpose or importance. From this standpoint, it might be possible to see the experimental art forms of the early 1920s, Joycean fiction for instance, as, precisely, “futile”, in their very concern for the way in which modern consciousness filters the trivial or trifling experiences of...
(The entire section is 797 words.)
SOURCE: Taylor, D. J. “A Veteran with a Secret.” Spectator 287, no. 9025 (28 July 2001): 32.
[In the following review, Taylor commends Thorpe's portrayal of his protagonist in Nineteen Twenty-One, but notes that the novel occasionally loses focus.]
Without wanting to turn hugely reductive, there are perhaps two main procedural difficulties involved in writing the kind of historical novel which it is possible to respect. The first is the problem of sensibility: did the inhabitants of Ancient Rome, Saxon Dorset or Dreyfus-era France really think and speak like this? The second—and quite as obtrusive if it goes wrong—is the problem of artefacts, in other words furnishing your recreated world with items that are appropriate to the milieu without conveying a sense of removal men shifting things into place. To put it another way, there were other records on the juke box in 1963 apart from ‘She Loves You’ and other topics of conversation at 1956 dinner tables than Nasser.
If nothing else, Adam Thorp's new novel deals efficiently with both these problems. However firmly embedded in that groaning genre of novels about the first world war, or rather the first world war's aftermath, Nineteen Twenty-One carries its research lightly. Its dialogue is dialogue rather than socio-historical stage direction, and even the reference to Mr Joyce scribbling away at his extraordinary...
(The entire section is 666 words.)
SOURCE: Catling, Patrick Skene. “Little Boy Lost.” Spectator 292, no. 9119 (17 May 2003): 64-5.
[In the following review, Catling offers a positive assessment of No Telling, praising Thorpe for being “able to portray coherently and at length primal emotional experiences, which are recognisably authentic and universal.”]
The early diaries of Adrian Mole were a witty caricature of pubescence, but pimples and sexual bewilderment are not always funny at the time. Adam Thorpe's wonderful new novel, [No Telling,] dedicated to his three children, is the real thing. He has written a sensitive, unsentimental, surprisingly not unhumorous account of the anguish of a boy's growing awareness in his 12th and 13th years in a family in acute disorder.
Everyone is said to retain subconsciously all memories from the very beginning. Dali and Jane Russell said they could remember life in the womb. But most people's retrieval of early memories is haphazard and fragmentary. Thorpe's empathy with his young protagonist is so vivid that he has been able to portray coherently and at length primal emotional experiences, which are recognisably authentic and universal. Few writers can achieve this sort of impersonation, as many books for children make painfully obvious.
The story is about a petit-bourgeois family in a Paris suburb in 1967 and 1968. Gilles Gobain, at the age...
(The entire section is 647 words.)
Eder, Richard. “Hearts of Darkness.” New York Times Book Review (6 February 2000): 11.
Eder offers a positive assessment of Pieces of Light.
Kinsella, John. “How to Spot an Englishman? He's the One with the Bag of Fetishes.” Observer Review (9 August 1998): 14.
Kinsella argues that Pieces of Light, is marred by Thorpe's self-consciousness and lack of focus.
Mangan, Gerald. “An Evening at the Ballet.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5225 (23 May 2003): 24.
Mangan evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of No Telling.
Mars-Jones, Adam. “Paris 68: Tear Gas, Riots, The Beatles—and that Very Odd Business with the Vacuum Cleaner.” Guardian (8 June 2003): 12.
Mars-Jones compliments the “enormous amount of skill” that is evident in Thorpe's No Telling.
Wroe, Nicholas. “Africa Comes to Ulverton.” Guardian (15 August 1998): 10.
Wroe lauds Thorpe's narrative skill in Pieces of Light.
———. “Narratives of Life Caught on the Wind.” Guardian (20 January 2001): 11.
Wroe provides an overview of Thorpe's life and writing upon the publication of Shifts.
Additional coverage of Thorpe's life and career is...
(The entire section is 184 words.)