Adam Thorpe Essay - Critical Essays

Thorpe, Adam


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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).

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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


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Mark Wormald (review date 21-27 October 1988)

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,...

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Lachlan Mackinnon (review date 17-23 August 1990)

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...

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D. J. Taylor (review date 1 May 1992)

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...

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John Bilston (review date 8 May 1992)

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...

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Ross Clark (review date 16 May 1992)

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...

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Jonathan Coe (review date 11 June 1992)

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...

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Richard Eder (review date 17 January 1993)

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...

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John Banville (review date 8 April 1993)

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...

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Marc Robinson (review date 26 April 1993)

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...

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Thomas Filbin (review date autumn 1993)

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...

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Laurence O'Toole (review date 21 April 1995)

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...

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Tom Shippey (review date 21 April 1995)

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,...

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John Fowles (review date 29 April 1995)

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...

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Tamsin Todd (review date 31 July 1998)

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...

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David Crane (review date 29 August 1998)

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...

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Ra Page (review date 2 October 1998)

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...

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Justine Jordan (review date 29 October 1998)

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...

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John Greening (review date 23 July 1999)

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...

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Alex Clark (review date 7 January 2000)

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.


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Nicholas Fern (review date 22 January 2000)

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,...

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Michael Thorpe (review date March 2000)

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...

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Matthew Beaumont (review date 22 June 2001)

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,...

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D. J. Taylor (review date 28 July 2001)

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...

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Patrick Skene Catling (review date 17 May 2003)

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...

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Further Reading


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.


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