Adam Thorpe Criticism - Essay

Mark Wormald (review date 21-27 October 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Lachlan Mackinnon (review date 17-23 August 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 659 words.)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 847 words.)

Ross Clark (review date 16 May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 775 words.)

Jonathan Coe (review date 11 June 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1211 words.)

John Banville (review date 8 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1215 words.)

Marc Robinson (review date 26 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 810 words.)

Laurence O'Toole (review date 21 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 600 words.)

Tom Shippey (review date 21 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1018 words.)

Tamsin Todd (review date 31 July 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 714 words.)

David Crane (review date 29 August 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 643 words.)

Ra Page (review date 2 October 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

Michael Thorpe (review date March 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 647 words.)