Mark Wormald (review date 21-27 October 1988)

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SOURCE: Wormald, Mark. “Delving Sensually.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4464 (21-27 October 1988): 1181.

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[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:

It's difficult to find anything
interesting to say about it:
I read Lawrence's Apocalypse
between the boxes.

Here, the treatment is wholly successful—the apparent diversion, the route out the banal ordinariness of the present into Thorpe's favoured territory of a cultivated, stylized past, eventually leads him back, and his engagement in his own experience is the richer for a sense of what it overlays. But his measured progress through history can sometimes look precarious. His taste for the onomatopoeic—“clink”, “click”, “chink”—and his favourite image, the lepidopterist's “pin”, clearly aim at a microscopic accuracy of observation; but the result is occasionally a thin, precious fastidiousness. “The Second Coming”, an attempt simultaneously to relocate Christianity in rural England and to fuse the aura of the mythological with the specificity of the personal, momentarily exchanges poise for posturing. Colloquialism can all too easily sound insensitive. “That's it, then: no laying on of hands / for yours truly” is one instance where Thorpe loses his balance.

Elsewhere, though, bold juxtaposition of tones and registers rarely leads to the mawkish. His archaeological delvings are often as sensual as Heaney's; his sure economy of phrasing creates the beautiful and the pithy far more frequently than the obscure. Adam Thorpe looks like becoming a worthy inheritor of the poetic tradition he so obviously admires.

Lachlan Mackinnon (review date 17-23 August 1990)

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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 limpness, the uneven intensity of diction which distracts without illuminating. “The Trance-Paintings of Lascaux” opens:

Those chalked horses that flexed their haunches
in the firelight once, came to their familiars
like TV personalities, quiz-game
hosts exultant with possibilities
do to us

The technical uncertainty is matched by the anomalous “like” for “as”, whose purpose is to emphasize the “do”. The devices don't quite hang together, just as “exultant with possibilities” doesn't say anything in particular. Yet, the idea is an interesting one and the use of “familiars” to suggest that men are the creatures of their own magic is ingenious.

I sound, I fear, like the subject of “English” in the sequence “The Common Room”, a martinet who “terrifies / language into subordination”, who is “merciless / with the mutiny of spelling” and resolute against “the prolix”. Thorpe's character, however, is shown as an enemy of the uncivilized energy that poetry has—although he regards Rupert Brooke as “cissy”—and it's the lack of that energy in Thorpe's poems which disquiets me. In “Persia”, Thorpe remembers that failure to pair off at a school dance, aged fifteen, leads one to blame “the acne / to save acute distress or the scar / for life”: this ironic parenthesis might itself be the occasion of a further irony, but not here.

When Thorpe finds “war already out of date / with its expensive guns” in “Summer School”, “expensive” doesn't get the charge it has in Auden's “Musee des Beaux Arts”, though his preference for an “international future” is sympathetic and his admiration for the foreign students' assault on English is engagingly stumbling.

these picks attacking the rock face
towards some vista of meaning,
clarity, as if the clouds
will, yes, clear eventually,
will yield an apex huge
with understanding: not precarious,
not reason-deep in drifts.

The poet's wish for an understanding prior to reason is not uncommon, but is presented attractively here as the metaphor drifts away from observation.

Thorpe has an unusual range of subjects, mostly come across in the course of domestic life: children, metal detectors, dinosaurs, the Tube, a Walkman, faxes, school, Montaigne, landscapes, the historic and the actual carefully juxtaposed. “DIY” is a frightening account of how the “undealt-with deficiency” in a marriage is papered over by visits to the “Local Homebase”: it has the verbal slacknesses we grow used to in this volume, but in its attention to other lives promises something richer and stranger. Thorpe's poetic sensibility is liberal, decent, muted, and having a serious temperament with neither the self-loathing nor the self-love to take himself seriously he needs absorption in otherness—religious or human—to come at any striking energy of feeling. Meeting Montaigne is in the end too blandly likeable to be loved.

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

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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 someone else. The second is from a cleric pitted simultaneously against natural forces and galloping Dissent; and the third from a small farmer bent upon “Improvement”.

Wholly self-absorbed, the tone benefits from this inward direction. Stagey it may be, but in its refusal to grapple head-on with obtrusive national issues it is seldom stage-managed.

There is a plot, too, or at least a series of threads woven through these recapitulations of bygone existence. A legendary shepherd's doxy who, by supposedly giving birth to a sheep, transposed herself into a creature of myth; an 18th-century joiner's apprentice who saw an angel; odd echoes from the agricultural riots of the 1830s; an imaginative squire's hollowing out of a chalk horse on the downs. Each of these symbols translates happily enough through time to produce an informal heritage, and the sense of past experience working to shape the modern landscape, where barn conversions harbour computer hardware, is unignorable.

Yet does Ulverton work as a novel, rather than as an immensely partial mental gazetteer? The answer, I imagine, is no, and the explanation is less to do with Adam Thorpe's abilities as a novelist, or rather as a mimic, than with the particular fictional alleyway he is bent on investigating: one which, after several promising detours and badly disguised exits, shows every sign of turning into a cul-de-sac. Like Julian Barnes' A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, the novel is—once the shreds of ulterior motive have been filed away—simply a series of impersonations. In consequence, the reader's task is limited to deciding which of the voices work, in terms of authenticity, plausibility and interest, and which do not.

Here Thorpe is on shakier ground. About half of the 12 sections pass the authenticity and interest test with ease. Others are less successful, in particular the series of letters by the late 18th-century mother to her Newgate-sequestered son, and the Victorian ploughman's stream of consciousness. The novel is about a third too long, and the second half could decently have been pruned back. There is also the tiresome coyness over what is already feigned, which leads Thorpe to insert parentheses and question marks in the 1830s rioters' depositions, and footnotes in a 1950s sound recording to the effect that five seconds have been lost “due to electrical interference”.

The wider drawback remains. John Banville has been hauled in to applaud what he calls a “wholly successful testing of the limits of literary art”, but all we are really being asked to approve is the author's ventriloquial skill. This is variable.

John Bilston (review date 8 May 1992)

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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 necessary. Twenty pages of a loquacious, superannuated chippy, scrounging booze from a gullible traveller at an inn, is too much; seventy pages of telly interview-speak and film-producer's jargon is a surfeit. However, 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. For example, in the first few pages, a Cromwellian soldier returns home bearing ribbons for his wife's hair, only to find that she has shacked up with somebody else while he has been away. This cuckold's subsequent disappearance under suspicious circumstances is accounted for only at the end of the book, when a couple of televised archaeologists discuss their latest find: “We've—I think we can safely say, ‘soldier’. Probably Crom—Yes—and a bit of er, what looks like, I think we can safely say, silk. Ribbon? In his hand er, I think we—But he has been bonked on the head.” And in a section dated 1803, a carpenter's apprentice, disgruntled with his lot, hurls his tool-chest into the river. The author later contrives that a diarist, in 1953, should receive a letter from the local museum explaining that “The item you retrieved from the River Fogbourne is not, as you thought, a Saxon dagger, but a bradawl, probably eighteenth century”. Similarly, the names (and familial characteristics) of the village's inhabitants serve to unify these narratives through the course of history. Thomas Walters, the opportunist cuckolder of the first story, is superseded in the last drama by a property shyster, Clive Walters of “Walters New Homes Ltd”, while the star of one tale, Abraham Webb, eighteenth-century master joiner, is re-called when mention is made of Webb's Timber Yard in a 1988 scene.

Ulverton is by turns sad, amusing and mildly acerbic. Violet Nightingale's diary account of her secretarial work for a famous cartoonist gradually reveals the vulnerable, rather pathetic figure (like a character from a Barbara Pym novel) of a sensitive church-going spinster, getting through the spam-and-cocoa post-war years with the help of an occasional Cherry Heering, but secretly mourning the pilot, killed in action, whom she had loved. There is a funny recollection by an old carpenter, of how he once hid in an oak tree and persuaded his employer to reduce his working hours by the simple expedient of addressing the master, ostensibly from the Empyrean, in God's voice: “A-bra-ham!” “Yea, my Lord?” “If thee keepest thy lads at work till eleven, / Thee shalt not enter the kingdom of Heaven!” And there's a (not very powerful) vituperative tilt in the direction of the rogue land developers who are hacking and racking the growing green despite the persistent literary endeavours of a local journalist, “Alan Thorpe”.

Nostalgia, though, is the sentiment most apparent throughout Ulverton. Thorpe conveys regret at the passing of the old ways (the blacksmith's shop, the unfenced land, the horse and cart and the clop of croquet-mallets) and in doing so aligns himself with English pastoral/imperial tradition. The rot set in, of course, some time around 1914, and an affecting passage describes the delivery of the momentous news to the reapers in the harvest fields during that fateful penultimate week of August. And there's more than a hint of Excalibur in the following account of the Squire's grandfather's Waterloo sabre, which may be intended as a bit of pastiche, but seems, nevertheless, to express something of Thorpe's own nostalgic vision:

The sword's magical properties increased. It flashed back at us the golden dazzling moments of British victories. Its needle-sharp point proclaimed our freedoms. Its sleek curve was as perpetual as the spumed steely coastline of our island. The Squire swung it through the evening air, and its high hiss was the civilised thrum of the great Empire, quietly valiant, subduing only the primitive and bloody places of the world, erecting industry in its stead.

Ross Clark (review date 16 May 1992)

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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 series of letters written by a lady of the landed gentry to her lover, a metropolitan cad who gradually loses interest in her. Through the spring and summer of 1743 she tells him lovingly of the improvements she has been making to the household, such as the installation of a marble fireplace and the purchase of a Caribbean slave called Leeward. She suggests too that she might have the parish common enclosed. Throughout, her disregard for her servants and tenants comes across as a way of impressing her lover.

A retired civil servant's memoirs of the village in 1914, written upon his return from India, are very accurate. Written in the apocalyptic tones of the post-first-world-war era, they tell of how the local squire continued his archaeological excavation after war had been declared. They dwell on the smells and noises of the squire's motor car—the first in Ulverton—and conclude with an account of his chauffeur returning from the trenches with no arms.

A little less successful is a sermon preached by an enormously pompous Reverend Crispin Brazier in the year 1689. Some of it comes across as a parody by the late Frankie Howerd—‘My children. Snigger not.’ Thorpe's attempt to recreate the spelling of a semi-literate 18th-century peasant might be accurate but becomes painful to read. A 1953 journal by a typist employed by a local cartoonist, Herbert Bradman of Punch, is rather dull.

However well Ulverton reads as fiction, it must be judged equally on its historical accuracy. The jacket blurb, which, as with most modern books, is an orgy of superlatives, claims that Thorpe's work is ‘based on a bedrock of folk-tales, myth and oral tradition’.

To qualify as good history, all place names and dialects used in the book would have to be entirely convincing. I am not sure that they are. Thorpe does well to vary the spelling of ‘Ulverton’ according to the ways in which locals would have corrupted it. But I was troubled by the presence of a neighbouring village called Bursop. I cannot find a single place-name with the ending ‘-sop’ in Wessex, or indeed in any part of southern England. It seems to be exclusively an East Midlands' suffix.

Ulverton would have made a better historical work if some of Thorpe's characters had deliberately written for a future readership. For example, his 18th-century farmer refers to the ‘evil usage’ of the grain in his field as being ‘the Vice of the age’. To the general reader this might appear as something of a mystery; one wishes the farmer had gone on to explain, à la Cobbett, the uniquely favourable economics of gin distillation at the time (1712) which gave rise to what became known as the great gin debauch.

Thorpe clearly knows a great deal about rural English history; it would be better if he shared a little more of it with his reader. The historian's skill is to discover scraps of information in ancient writings and documents and to explain what they mean. Thorpe specialises in creating the scraps of information but does not always do enough to explain them.

If every chapter was to the standard of the farmer's journal, Ulverton would be a very entertaining book indeed. As it is, one longs for William Cobbett to come galloping through the village.

Jonathan Coe (review date 11 June 1992)

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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 remark about the uncinematic qualities of this same landscape, that Britain can never produce films of world stature).

But here, anyway, is Adam Thorpe to prove the assumption triumphantly wrong, because his first novel [Ulverton] is indeed a ‘palimpsest history’ of exceptional resonance and scope, even though its focus rests entirely on a single (fictional) English village, viewed over a period of some three hundred years. There are 12 sections, each one working as a self-contained short story while also forming part of a larger narrative which is constantly looking back upon and adding to itself. These stories are meaty, dramatic, suspenseful: they deal in issues of betrayal, secrecy, discovery and deception, two characteristic examples being ‘Improvements’, set in 1712, in which a farmer conducts a clandestine affair with his parlour maid, and ‘Wing’ (1953), in which a writer's downtrodden secretary decides to sabotage his egomaniacal bid for immortality. An extreme instance of details overlapping from one story to the next occurs when the central unresolved mystery from the first section—what happened to the treasure brought back by a solider returning from Cromwell's army, only to be murdered by his newly-remarried wife?—is solved almost in passing during a brief scene in the last section, 350 pages later, when the same soldier's skeleton is finally dug up on a building site.

The risks and technical difficulties involved in an enterprise such as this are enormous. As far as his pastiche of earlier styles is concerned, Thorpe exudes confidence: he's well up to the standard set by Barnes and Ackroyd, say. (Not that judgment is really possible by non-specialists in the relevant periods: it wasn't until a particularly unconvincing passage in the modern section—a conversation between three ‘youths’ who are required to mouth inarticulate platitudes like ‘Well I mean we en't gonna save the world and all the dolphins an weather and suchlike just by standing around’—that I began to wonder whether the sense of trust I'd felt while reading the earlier sections had as much to do with unfamiliarity as anything else.) But there's also a more deep-rooted problem which arises when any work of fiction makes an implicit claim, as Ulverton eventually does, to historical authenticity. It becomes especially pressing in the closing pages, when the heritage business closes in on the village and we begin to catch a whiff of authorial polemic. Clearly we are meant to recoil at the thought that a sepia photo of Ulverton's youngest and finest lined up in the square en route to the trenches—a poignant reminder of the tenth section. ‘Treasure’—is now being used as a bar-room decoration in a revamped pub. There is an outraged sense, here, of amnesia, of falsification, which depends upon our feeling that we, by contrast, know the ‘truth’ about Ulverton's history after watching it unfold in the author's hands. It therefore becomes vital for Thorpe to impress this sense of authenticity upon us, and yet in doing so he cannot avoid getting caught up in one of the most intractable of literary paradoxes: namely, that the more devices he, employs in an attempt to create verisimilitude, the greater is our awareness of his own controlling—and inventing—presence.

We cannot shake off our knowledge, in other words, that the fragmentation of the history laid before us—the breakings-off in mid-sentence (mid-word, even), the rows of dots, the ellipses, the lapses of memory—are the result not of random damage inflicted by time itself but of conscious decisions made by an author in possession of absolute power over his material. This is unfortunate, because it means that at those very moments when the book is straining its hardest to be authentic (particularly in one farmworker's lengthy and militantly incomprehensible stream-of-consciousness monologue) it does little but signal its own fictionality. Nonetheless Thorpe seems to be aware of the problem, and does his best to minimise the damage by introducing himself, in the character of a subversive writer, into the last section of his own novel. If this sounds like a ploy reminiscent of Julian Barnes's History of the World, with which Ulverton shares many formal characteristics, it has to be said that Thorpe on the whole scores higher, not only in the sense of including 1 1/2 more chapters but in his general policy of letting the characters' voices speak out loud and clear, not muffled by a cushion of authorial knowingness.

The most impressive achievement of Ulverton, finally, lies not in technical bravura, or the intelligence with which it grasps the nature of history, but in its core of emotional truth. We might single out the humour (‘Last night,’ an 18th-century diarist writes of his wife, ‘she hit me with the stick we keep for this purpose beside the bed’) and Thorpe's gift for making it shade into seriousness (a few pages later we learn that the stick is there at the husband's request—his wife nearly died in childbirth and he wants her to use it every time he makes sexual advances towards her). But the portrayals of poverty and rural deprivation are also commendably unsentimental, and the novel impresses with its insistence—which never descends to mere pro-feminist point-scoring—that the bitterest hardships, over the centuries, have been visited upon Ulverton's women. These hardships can either take the form of small indignities (the secretary who finds that her boss, putting together a strongbox of contemporary relics for the benefit of future historians, has classified her Tampax under ‘Vogues & Luxuries’), or severe physical cruelties such as forcible confinement or an agonisingly protracted delivery. Ulverton is, of necessity, a very physical book, full of blood, sex, food and shit (‘you on't eat nowt wi'out it come out some place,’ as one character wisely observes), because one of Thorpe's abiding themes is the inseparability of the physical and the emotional: it's for this reason, after all, that the exhumation which concludes the novel is able to cast such a revealing light on a crime of passion which had baffled villagers more than three hundred years earlier.

Richard Eder (review date 17 January 1993)

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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 cadging drinks in the pub tells of the master cabinetmaker he served all his life, a man so attuned to his work that when he lay dying, he could tell by the sound when one of the men making his coffin had hammered a brad wrong.

At the end of World War I, a retired colonial official tells of his neighbor, Ulverton's squire, who, living on the hinge between his old English order and the unmanageable new times, falls into despair and hangs himself. The woodworker's voice is rural-rough, the official's possesses a strain of Edwardian poetry; but both are master storytellers.

Other voices are more fragmentary, more sunk into what the speaker can't perceive and for that reason—part of the wonderful accomplishment of the book—are even more revealing. In 1680, Parson Brazier, in disgrace with his parish, rants in shattered Biblical phrases about the winter trek in which his old verger and his young curate freeze to death while he survives by putting on their clothes. Cromwell is dead, and the king and the Church of England are back on top, but in the parson's broken voice and the dark suspicions he faces, we sense the civil wars and religious storms of the time.

In 1775, an impoverished woman dictates to a near-illiterate local tailor a series of pitiful messages to her son, who is to be executed for stealing a hat. The baleful rigors of the social system are in her voice. They are differently present in the stilted letters written in 1743 by Ulverton's lady of the manor to her faithless lover, the decamped family tutor. It is a text whose vanity and goosey obliviousness—she casually notes that the gardener will hang for passing their messages—suggests the stultification of a rural ruling class and the corrupt idleness in which it imprisoned its women.

A lawyer is sent from London to take the testimony of the farm workers on trial for sedition after the 1830 riots against the enclosures and the new methods that threatened their livelihoods. The lawyer is prissy, fussy and suffering from consumption. He serves the Crown unquestioningly, yet we sense the urban professional who will rise with the middle classes in Victorian times.

By 1859, the change has taken place. Elizabeth Pyke speaks of her photographic plates in phrases of conventional feminine propriety. Bit by bit, we see a powerful liberation. The brilliance of her comments about photography (like the enthralling account of the work of the cabinetmaker, it is an instance of Thorpe's richly detailed scope) shows her professional mastery. And her shrewd sympathy with the lives of her village subjects put her in the line of the 19th-Century reformers. Of one seamed face she writes how, in a smoky cottage with few facilities for washing, grime carves and hardens the wrinkles of the poor.

The rise of the independent yeoman farmers is suggested in one of the book's finest stories. From 1712 we hear the voice of Plumm recounting his daily labor on his 60 acres. He belongs to a stern Non-conformist sect, the kind that so tormented poor Parson Brazier. Plumm and his wife keep a stick in their bedroom so that—since she is sickly and can't have children—she can flagellate him piously to lower his lust. Lust will rise up; in several splendidly comic passages, Plumm impregnates the maid.

Impregnation is the point. Plumm's acres of “brashy” (stubbornly thin) soil are his Eden and he is Adam, resolved to be fruitful and multiply. Once again, Thorpe transports us utterly into his character's passion for his craft and into the craft itself. Plumm avidly watches the dawn of rural technological change, but he has to be cautious. His laborers will not use an iron plow or a seed-drill, insisting that they poison the soil. He has to go along, as well as defer to a pre-Christian tradition by putting up the figure of a corn-doll at harvest time. “How common knowledge vitiates all attempts at individual improvement,” he grumbles.

Beneath the variety of Ulverton's episodes is the current that links them, and that makes this one of the great British fictional works of our time. Each voice gives us a richly accomplished story; as one voice follows another, we are given the waxing and waning of history, of the land, and of the ways in which society regards itself and the world it disposes of.

There are the speech changes over 350 years. The shepherd who narrates a pagan story of passion and violence in 1650 uses language that, in its liturgical simplicity, is much clearer to us than the thick Wiltshire dialect in the difficult though rewarding rambling of an 1890s farm worker.

There are the small changes and recurrences, the sprockets that engage time and move it along. The Devil's Knob, where Parson Brazier sheltered—so called because it was a trysting place—becomes Kistle's Cross, named after the unfortunate curate. By the 20th Century, it is Kissers' Cross, having never lost its original use. The witchcraft power of bedwine in the first story—it is a lacy plant whose seeds spread on the wind—turns to a political symbol when John Oadam wears it in his hair to proclaim the broadcast of his rebellious cause.

There are larger recurrences. In the ghostly 1650 story, a soldier in Cromwell's army comes home to find his wife remarried. The wife and her new husband, Tom Walters, murder him. Three hundred and fifty years later, Clive Walters, Tom's descendant, is a builder and developer whose “tasteful” houses encroach upon the landscape's grandeur. His excavations dig up the skeleton of the Cromwell soldier. It slows work and scares off buyers.

This is a coincidence, a trick of plot, if you like. But Ulverton's sweep, its wisdom, and the splendor of its writing are such that even coincidences are appropriately incorporated in its construction of the passage of time and time's power to make beauty come visible just at the moment of loss.

John Banville (review date 8 April 1993)

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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 presumed dead by everyone in the village, including his wife, Anne, who by now is remarried. He has come home to reclaim his old life, bringing gold rings taken in plunder from the sacked towns of Wexford and Drogheda. No sooner does he arrive than he disappears again, along with his valuables, done away with, apparently, by his wife and her new husband. The narrator is the only other to have witnessed Gabby's return, and he makes a tacit bargain with Anne by which she will trade sexual favors in return for his silence. It is a comfortable arrangement.

And this went on, oh, for years, until I couldn't see the bedwine plumes in her hair no longer before I blew them off. Then she sickened and died one winter. Sometimes she would whisper the name of Gabby in my ear. And I an old man!

She was the last witch I ever knew.

I was a little mad, probably.

That's the story.

It is a very stark and powerful opening, with occasional glints of gruesome humor. Thorpe's style is rich, tough, inventive: a poet's prose, but with no trace of that clinging gauze that some poets spread over their fiction. Perhaps taking his inspiration from the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter in Joyce's Ulysses, Thorpe progresses through his twelve historical episodes with a style appropriate to each: “1689: Friends” is in the form of a sermon by one of the English divines (“You shalt see how deep to the heart hath this poison entered, my children, when this true history is wound up”). The episode “1712: Improvements” is written as a sort of husbandman's calendar (“I have spent this day constructing a dry hedge for the protection of my young trees that I am to plant about my top field”), “1743: Leeward” is in epistolary form, and is followed by a courtroom testimony, a series of captions to photographic plates, a memoir, a diary, and, in the closing section, “1988: Here,” a documentary film script.

The method works, with surprising lightness and smoothness, though some sections are by no means easy reading; here is the opening of “1887: Stitches”:

gate ope now maunt lope about in Gore patch wi' they crusty bullocks yeeeeeeeeeow bloody pig-sticken them old hooks jus yowlin out for grease haaf rust look yaa that old Stiff all pinch an screw all pinch an bloody screw aye shut he fast now hup ramshackles old bugger see med do with a stoop spikin onto post wi' that hang yaa a deal more years nor Hoppetty have a-had boy eh …

However, even such a seemingly impenetrable thicket of dialect becomes easier the farther one penetrates into it. Thorpe's odd and occasionally broad strokes of humor are a help. “1803: Rise” is an account of an elaborate practical joke recalled by an old-timer (“Heh heh”) in a pub as he touches a visiting stranger for free beer.

An he says, all quiet, but wi' a mouth as big as a saw-pit:

“Dang un.”

Then he comes to it, like, as though he be on a sudden doushed in cold water, an gets down on his knees, an claps his two hands into one, an makes a gugglin noise out o' his throat, an coughs, an starin upperds he says:

“Lord, dost thou forgive me?”

Aye. An we were quiet as the grave. I tells thee. Sir.

The slyest and most cleverly and darkly humorous chapter is “1775: Dissection,” done as a series of letters from a grief-stricken Ulverton mother to her ne'er-do-well son away in London who is to be hanged for thieving. Poor Mrs. Shail, dying of cancer, dictates the letters through the barely literate “john Pounds tailer” who, unknown to the mother, adds his own increasingly baleful postscripts:

P.S. I hev not red to hur al you rote God forgif thee thy tung asll soon bee lillin oute al rite … by God wen thee bee slicd upp & throne too the doggs I ool be in heaven al rite with thy mamy soein a fine net in & oute wen thee bee danglin wotch thy cokk it don go upp itt shll al rite but thee ooll be pissin thy sole in too the dust you hev yr jus regard i hev mine al rite

                                        john Pounds tailer
yr mam think this bee a praier soitt bee

The final letter, however, written through the agency of “Mr John Bate our Curate,” rejoices at the son's pardon and imminent return to Ulverton. “Mr. Pounds trembled with Shock as if he had seen a Ghost. This is the power of Prayer.”

Thorpe weaves the sections together with great skill and greater restraint, avoiding the determinism that might tempt a lesser writer. The threads that run from one historical period to the next in the end form a subtle and convincing pattern in the narrative. The single failure in the book is, I think, the final section, a “post production script” of the film documentary Clive's Seasons, one of a series called “A Year in the Life.” It is heavy-handed and gimmicky, and takes nearly eighty pages to say not much more than John McGahern [author of The Collected Stories] did in the single paragraph from the story “Old Fashioned” I have quoted from earlier. Thorpe himself makes an appearance in the script, which has a rather feeble “green” message.

It is a pity this section is so weak, since what has gone before is truly original and moving. At the end, the murdered soldier Gabby Cobbold reappears, closing the circle of the book with a satisfying rattle of bones, and we see the significance of a remark in the opening paragraph nearly four hundred pages earlier: “I thought perhaps the warrior buried there had stood up again to haunt us.” Ulverton is one of the finest novels to have come out of England in a long time.

Marc Robinson (review date 26 April 1993)

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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 cadences, Thorpe is also able to glimpse moments of his landscape's history. Ulverton is a fictional village in Wessex, geared to cycles of farming and so acutely sensitive to the consequences of time passing. What was once a “croft” evolves over the years into an untilled “lea,” finally becoming a greedy developer's “plot”—and in the change in vocabulary one can measure shifts in attitude and speculate on the growing gulf between the ground and the people who tend it.

Ulverton charts such shifts over the course of more than three centuries. Beginning in 1650, the novel moves in large leaps, alighting every thirty years or so to take stock of the village's fortunes—what traditions have disappeared, what prejudices have taken root, what rumors and scandal are current. Occasionally Thorpe descends at expected moments of national history: after one of England's many labor uprisings around 1830; during the draft of 1914. More often, though, he sets his itinerary according to the village's private idea of value: the year a prominent farmer shocked the community by fathering an illegitimate child (1712), for instance, or the months during 1953 when Ulverton prepared a time capsule and buried it amid much civic hoopla. These events are at least equally important.

Thorpe's ample humanity also informs his choice of narrator. Declining omniscience, Thorpe delegates the task of telling Ulverton's story to its residents. The novel consists of different kinds of testimony in different styles, each bearing traces of the teller's particular bias, none presuming to be authoritative. The largest pleasures of these stories are aural; they derive from prose alive with the warm, throaty energy of speech. Sometimes a witness speaks with a wide audience in mind, and part of our interest is in observing the way that self-consciousness and self-regard interfere with reportage. At other times, it's clear that a speaker never intends a hearing larger than an intimate, or a group of friends, or just himself; as we read the love letters and diary entries, or listen in on a gassy tale in a bar, there's an uncomfortable sense of eavesdropping or of rooting through papers not meant for our eyes. This uneasiness about the reader's and writer's roles, which prevails throughout the novel, disrupts any creeping nostalgia and prevents unearned charm.

Perhaps it is Thorpe's awareness of how easily his novel could slip into miniseries sentimentality that keeps him digging deeper and staying with his subjects longer than would a writer merely fascinated with places and eager to cover territory. Thorpe isn't an easily distracted sort of traveler, and the considerable beauties of his prose owe nothing to any strenuously created “mood.” He treats mood and other hallmarks of the picturesque as obstacles to be overcome. Far from enhancing his project, they threaten to blur its focus and numb his readers.

Instead, he writes with the hard-won earnestness of one who has waited for the thrilling first impressions of his village to subside—the sparkling dew to evaporate; the rosy sky to go back to standard English gray—and who knows that only then does his real work begin. A particular barn that sheltered an eighteenth-century tryst, for instance, or a ruined garden where someone else trespassed seems so unremarkable at first glance, their stories encrusted with layers of indifference, that Thorpe first must alter his reader's way of seeing before displaying what he has found there. Some chapters, it must be said, spend an unconscionably long time talking about seeding patterns and woodworking techniques. But for the most part, the chapters are leisurely in Ulverton for a reason: Thorpe is encouraging readers to settle into the prose and to wait as his writing delicately scrapes away at history, moving slowly into the past—a past that, when he's done, seems truly to have been lived, not merely passed through.

His archaeologist's temperament doesn't make Thorpe a cold writer. Such patience, in fact, only intensifies the disquiet that comes with any act of searching, when the object of the search can only barely be guessed at. Thorpe is wonderfully able to give the impression that he isn't expecting to find anything in particular during his excavations, a quality that gives his looking more vigor, and also more tolerance. He is a listening writer, reluctant to prescribe meaning, cautious about his conclusions. As might be expected, the more details about Ulverton he reveals the harder it becomes for him to hold onto any “concept” of the village. Gracious enough to allow his subject to retain its inscrutability, Thorpe never presumes that he has actually revisited the past—a rare humility for a novelist assuming the guise of historian. A twentieth-century character writes:

Our village was more full of eccentrics then than now, but even the most awry of minds was inextricably woven into the common fabric, just as the trees in the wood grow more individual the more familiar one becomes with the mass. Matters have changed: our great roads are thronged with motor-cars and lorries, the wireless tinkles, the telephone connects us with far-away towns. Ulverton is slowly losing its sense of remoteness; each day brings the world nearer, darkening my room with its passing, pruning us of our odder growths, blowing away the strong rich scents that come of stagnation. The nearest high scarp is no longer the edge of the world, and heads barely turn when the toot of a motor-car sounds at Church Corner. Is this to be regretted? Time, dear reader, shall arbitrate upon that question—not I.

Thorpe's restraint is evident in the very structure of the novel. Not satisfied that his multiple narrators will broaden the focus enough, Thorpe gives many of his chapters the look of found documents—with all the effects of time unretouched. Stories often begin and end in the middle of a sentence, as though these few pages were all that survived some unspoken calamity. The chapter from 1953 contains, among other things, only part of a transcript of a tape recorded memoir: the first five-and-a-half minutes have been “lost due to magnetic tape snapping,” another five seconds gone because of “electrical interference.” Later in the same chapter, the narrator explains that her typewriter is failing her, and as we read on, the “o” starts dropping from her words—“riginal,” “frm,” “effrt”—each gulping sound a healthy reminder of the fragile hold any writer has on history.

At its most evocative, a vestigial testimony will point to a larger absence, making Ulverton ultimately a portrait of loss. By meditating on the lacunae in his imagined history rather than working to fill them in, Thorpe discovers painful hollows in his characters' lives. An exquisitely lyrical woman from 1743, for instance, leaves us erotic, beseeching letters to a secret lover; the fact, though, that none of his replies is here, if any were written, underscores all too vividly how doomed their love really was.

Throughout Ulverton questions are deliberately left unanswered and riddles unsolved—a murderer is never identified in one story; a woman's madness never explained in another. As unfinished business accumulates and even the simplest conversation falls into a void or occurs in airtight isolation, Ulverton begins to seem a deeply divided if not entirely fractured community. To an outsider, it looks quaint and bound by shared purpose, but in reality it is always on the verge of flying apart. The disappearance of old traditions, which is often the most lamented change in history-minded stories, is here only the symptom of a far-reaching spiritual erosion.

Despite Thorpe's tone of bemused equanimity, these social and cultural losses deeply trouble his characters; and at times Ulverton has the febrile energy of people who feel certain that everything glamorous and newsworthy has passed them by. Many of them tell their stories with a mix of defiance and hopefulness—defying the indifference they half-expect to encounter, hopeful that their good humor, sincerity or at least their vulnerability will nonetheless win over one or two listeners.

They compel attention so effectively because it's apparent that as they talk about banalities of farming life and seasonal pastimes they are really trying to find a seemly way to speak of death—a topic whose grandeur would embarrass them if it wasn't disguised with metaphor. A farmer embeds his anxiety with his own mortality and the need to “seed an heir” in his steady-toned harvest log. By writing carefully about an amateur excavation in 1914 of one of Ulverton's mysterious hills and the ancient bones discovered there, an aging civil servant named Fergusson figures out how to talk about the way World War I devastated the village during those same months. Sometimes the feelings of loss are fleeting and their strains muted, but still the novel trembles.

In the end, Thorpe implicitly wonders if all acts of retrieving the past demand a ferocious willfulness that, if not monitored, can destroy the very goal one seeks. Perhaps no activity embodies this tension more poignantly than photography—and in fact photographs become troubling talismans in the later years of this chronicle, just the way rusty daggers and rickety wagon wheels did in earlier sections. A chapter called “Shutter,” set in 1859, collects the explanatory texts that accompanied photographs by an anonymous woman. (Most of the photos themselves are lost.) The volunteers in 1914 pose for a triumphal group portrait that ends up actually commemorating defeat and death. And, in 1988, a former resident of Ulverton returns to star in a documentary about the town; in the post-production script printed here, Ulverton aspires to be symbolic of English life and English troubles.

Thorpe's ambivalence about the power of photography doesn't lift during these last chapters, and Ulverton is richer for it. On the one hand, the nineteenth-century photographer is eloquent about the unjudgmental, exact nature of photographs—the very qualities that Thorpe strives to emulate in his prose. This side of the novelist can't fully deny the appeal of rescuing with a camera a portion of life from oblivion. Moreover, he enjoys how photographs seem to offer easy access to lost time; a mere lingering gaze at an image draws you back, even makes you feel that you posses this aspect of the past—not an unseductive illusion.

Yet it is just this illusion that the other Adam Thorpe tries to dispel. The way photographs freeze an event from the past threatens forever to hold that experience apart from us—making it less knowable, not more. In “Shutter,” it is the photographer's writing that evokes the actual energy of the person or place photographed; it amplifies on all the things left out of the frame. Most important, it suggests the attitude and relationship of the photographer toward what she sees, thus checking any impulse to view these images as fact. The words, of course, are never able to pin something down as swiftly as images can—and that's precisely why they are so appealing: they encourage readers to imagine what has failed to be represented, and so to engage with the past instead of merely beholding it.

Frozen images disturb Thorpe for more than aesthetic reasons. He also worries about how easily they can be manipulated, and how powerfully they can affect thought. To distract from the hard truths of the village, the documentary opens with panoramic shots of the countryside, romantic montage and close-ups of misty-eyed villagers gazing out over the landscape to the accompaniment of Vivaldi. In the same script, we learn that a developer refurbishing an Ulverton pub plans to use the 1914 photograph as one of many “touches” he hopes will summon up an authentic English atmosphere. Forgotten, of course, are all the gruesome associations with the photo. Gone, too, any chance to reflect on the unthinking patriotism behind the very taking of the picture, or on the shortsighted, hapless nature of the grinning young men hoping to be a part of history. History now is mere decor, as the old becomes the olde.

“Another year. There's always that. Another year.” The developer's motto, clichéd on first hearing, actually contains an antidote to his own trivializing impulses. This is a novel more concerned with time passing than with time past; and the wisest of its characters find opportunity in that transience. For Thorpe defines time as much as a salve as a scourge. While he certainly doesn't ignore the evidence of decay, he can see how the same force of time ensures his beloved landscape's future—promising to undo orthodoxies, dispel animosities, close wounds. Thinking again like a farmer, he sees cycles rather than straight lines of time; next year's harvest beneath this year's frost; life, however tentative, in the symbols of death. “Here,” says Fergusson, one “must see old things put to new and unlikely uses”—the glass-plate negatives, for instance, that belonged to the woman photographer are used two generations later to make miniature greenhouses in a cabbage garden.

Miss Violet Nightingale, the narrator from 1953, is Thorpe's most beguiling creation because she, too, believes in such reincarnation. From one angle, her diary tells of a dreary life—work as secretary to a bombastic cartoonist writing his memoirs, afternoons spent eating spam, spam fritters, dumplings, meat-paste, spam again. But her tone of voice tells a different story: it's a blend of the droll and the mischievous, the impertinent and the principled. When she burns her employer's memoir (piqued at being left out of its heroic tale), she demands a more capacious kind of history, one that, perhaps, isn't written down with such airs of finality. In her gesture, she insists that those who take it upon themselves to remember so publicly bear in mind the tentativeness of their record and acknowledge that they are making mere versions of experience, not dogma. Thorpe included: he reminds us of his own subjectivity by including a character identified as “Adam Thorpe, local author and performer” in the film script; this Thorpe is doing a series of articles about Ulverton's legends.

A version suggests others still to come and all the possible versions rejected. Violet's own writing does the same, for Thorpe has preserved her second-thoughts and revisions: a typical passage transcribed from a recording reads: “I really ought … Mr. Bradman is not a la … Although … I ought to say at this point that our professional relationship, while clo intimate, has never impinged on our private domains.” In the arrested words and tangled syntax Thorpe best dramatizes our truest relationship to experience—a constant struggle, nagging doubt about understanding. Thorpe is able to make crystalline music out of the English language, but it is the silences and gasps and lurching missteps in his prose that make Ulverton such a searching and always tactful novel.

Thomas Filbin (review date autumn 1993)

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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 everything on one good rendering of the moment. My problem with books of this sort is that there isn't sufficient “what” to get involved with, despite the fact that the “how” has a certain polish. Most people will read something that engrosses them rather than what doesn't, and if a book isn't able to sustain your interest, exhortations and flogging by critics aren't going to make you guilt ridden enough to pick it back up again.

Current European novels, on the other hand, seem to be far more content heavy, more universal, and are as a result more engaging. If walking around bookstores on both sides of the Atlantic is any proof, there is a clear trade imbalance occurring. Very little contemporary American fiction is visible in the shops of the Left Bank or Charing Cross Road, while the shelves here are overflowing with work by satiric Britons, post-communist Russians, and East Europeans of every emerging nationality. Their writers have tapped rich veins of subject matter that are attracting American readers because of a higher “interest rate,” if you will. We are doing no better at exporting fiction than computers or large sedans.

Some might claim unfair competition, that those regions of the world are inherently more interesting because of their past and present upheavals, but if our writers demand protectionist measures, we must refuse and keep the borders open. The new Europe might be sending us goods we need if our literary vision is ever to expand again to the subject of what our lives intend beyond their particulars. The books reviewed here pulled me in, stood and delivered, and found their center in the big stuff of meaning, identity, desire, and the struggle with the tyrannies of the state and our own human inadequacies. …

The English writer Adam Thorpe has been delivered of an ambitious book [Ulverton] (I say delivered because it has the immensity of a pregnancy and birth) which takes an invented village, Ulverton in Wessex, and plays back three hundred years of British history. Its short sections titled 1650, 1689, 1712, 1743, 1775, 1803, 1830, 1859, 1887, 1914, 1953, and 1988, extend from the Civil War to the predations of land developers in the eighties. The narrative voices from different points on this time line produce a cunning social archaeology of England.

Thorpe's artifacts of revelation are letters, sermons, drunken conversation, a photographer's caption notes, and even depositions from the legal proceedings against rural insurrectionist Luddites. Aristocrats from the manor, clergy, gentry, farmers, tradesmen, laborers, and paupers appear. Their interpretations of events vary with the age. Religion is a theme that underwrites every assumption in the seventeenth century, while divine providence is used to explain nothing by the twentieth.

Thorpe's encyclopedic knowledge of the ways and habits of ordinary life in an agrarian community creates a closed universe for the reader; he vividly and believably transports us into times when matters of food, shelter, and the vagaries of the weather were the main preoccupations. Mankind is the sum of its disasters and desires for Thorpe, and he has successfully created a sensate novel in which the smell of manure in the fields, the bite of the winter cold, and the noises of householding impress themselves upon us.

Some parts are crowded thickets of vegetation, wondrous but a challenge to wade through, such as the rambling slang of a Victorian era illiterate. Thorpe's method is to hang up a textual cork board for all sorts of thoughts to be pinned to, sometimes in slapdash exuberance, but this doesn't impede liking the book as a totality. Ulverton is canny, bold, and original.

Laurence O'Toole (review date 21 April 1995)

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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 who don't know their Carl Dreyer from their Robert Bresson; and who think the Odessa Steps “quotation” in De Palma's The Untouchables is the acme of cinematic intertextuality.

Which leaves Ricky with plenty of time on his hands and only the past to play with. Excavating the memory can be a dangerous game, however, inducing vertigo, disorientation and mental disintegration. That, ultimately, defines Still: a wordy, elaborate exposition of the art of falling apart.

This ought to make it a very now kind of confection. But it is a tough novel to read: it refuses to get started, while slowly driving the reader mad. Various teasing hints at possible plots slip and slide before the eyes, never to amount to anything. You yearn for a proper containing narrative to give weight to the profusion of babble and muddle.

This is supposed to be a sure thing, a baggy-monster novel, bursting at the seams, like Earthly Powers, like Ackroyd, Rushdie, Iain Sinclair. Here's a discursive, unruly juggernaut of textual super-abundance and verbal rambunctiousness—“buggering the English language”, as Angela Carter put it. But this time round, the massed detail, the screaming stream-of-consciousness, the cut-ups and interleavings, the doing of ODDThingS with the typography … it all seems so bogus, so “bloody dot-to-dot”, as Ricky would say.

Likewise the history. From time to time, lost deep inside this tale, you think you hear faint murmurings of something lean and profound regarding the traumas and riddles of this rotten century, aching to get out. And then, slowly but surely, the novel's historical montage comes into view and is in fact banal. There's some public-school beastliness at the birth of the century, a far-reaching sexual indiscretion across the classes, some murky wrongdoing in the trenches during the first world war, a spot of Nazism, a nod to Bosnia in 1993. It is ironic, no doubt, the labouring of such hackneyed material; but, as ironies go, it palls.

You feel mean, sticking it to a writer who has toiled long and hard on his brick-sized novel; you want to try to understand. The sense is of great effort gone astray, of crucial aesthetic errors committed, making for exactly the kind of puzzled, puzzling literary complexity that gives modern fiction a bad name. No wonder some people give up and read thrillers instead.

Tom Shippey (review date 21 April 1995)

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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 out of past and indeed unable to escape from it, nostalgia turned to impotence. The least attractive sense for Thorpe seems to be the old one of adjective or complement: very little in his novel ever stands still, or stays still, or keeps still, nor is there much about it of Henry V's “modest stillness and humility”.

Still is in fact a 584-page rant, starting in the middle of a sentence, broken into paragraphs ranging from a word to a couple of pages, and flashing from one time, setting or memory to another, but virtually all of it relentless I-narration from Rick. This is too like Private Eye's “Great Bores of Today” for comfort, and when near the end Rick is declared dead by his son, there is an impulse to cheer; but no, he is back on the next page, resurrected from the Thames like someone out of Dickens, or maybe the Ancient Mariner. Thorpe clearly knows all about this likely reaction, and lets Rick taunt the reader with imagined interjections—a voice shouting “WHERE'S THE ACTION RICKY”, a derisive question, “you think we ought to have some action?”, a teasing “you wanna know what happened, huh?” These soon found themselves accompanied in my copy by little interactive pencil notes, degenerating from “yes indeed” to “no, not much, not by this time”. But interactive or filmic or whatever, the basic idea is traditional enough. “A novel tells a story, o dear me yes”, as E. M. Forster would have put it, meaning by that that the real novel, the English novel (the English Studies novel) is an introspection on the themes of self and class.

Rick actually claims to have read English at Cambridge under F. R. and Q. D. Leavis, and though he also says later that this is a lie, he read Danish instead because there was less competition, the first story seems to fit his personality better. Rick is a prey to reverse snobbery—“You should have heard my accent then. … So I gave it a good thrashing, let all the muck out, and opened my gob at the fifth seminar. Silence”—all of which sounds very like English at Downing, though in the 1970s, not the 1950s as Rick pretends. Whichever story you prefer, Still has a good deal of someone's lecture on “Oxen of the Sun” in it, including the jokes about language evolution/deterioration. What the images of film have added is a belief in the disintegration of Standard Narrative as well as Standard English.

The other extraordinarily traditional element in this aggressively deconstructionist novel is its deep belief in the “now … as formerly” sense of its title. By the end, Rick has become a sort of archaeologist, digging on strangers' lawns for the bones of a kitten which his grandmother buried. To see if it's true? To reassure himself of the physical identity of the past? Maybe, to have continuity in his hands. Rick's memories—this is why he has to be aged sixty—cover all the traumas of this century, if in literary mode: the Great War memoir-novel (Graves, Sassoon and Aldington), the prep-school revenge-memoir (Orwell and Connolly), the campus farce (Amis and Wain), the escape-to-America fantasy (Lodge and Bradbury), All of them are in there, intercut with each other, but all of them, as becomes increasingly obvious, are part of the same on-going trauma of class-structures shaken but not seriously stirred. Except in America, fear of which is a major part of Rick's story. He glosses “I'm British after all” as “mean peevish and little”, and adds to that underpaid and under-appreciated. Why don't they pay him more as a film critic in the USA? Because he won't invent courses like The Valorization of the Vagina in Twentieth-Century Cinema. Well, the Leavises would be proud of such stalwart resistance to mere commercialism, but Harry Truman would have told him, “if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”

The underlying trouble is that Rick Thornby—like so many characters of the English novel from Powell to Williamson—suffers from an incurable inferiority complex. Constantly he plays off parody of powerful, dominating American accents against peevish, reassuring Cockney: “The barbarians are coming to town [that's the Americans] with Marlboros hanging aht the side of vier mahves [so speaks the sullen observer].” So what's the trauma that causes this inferiority still? Can it be the Great War? Thornby gives us a story about a great-uncle shot by a sniper, but this is pretty unconvincing: Mr Bottomley tried it last month, so it must be a cliché. Could it be the horrors of public school and university? As Orwell said, a few years in a warm bath of snobbery doesn't seem important enough for all this woe. Can it be the collapse of British hegemony and Standard English? Well, the latter hasn't happened, and the former feels like a great relief. No, it takes a professional sensitive to get quite so worked up about so little.

Why should a clever, tricky writer like the author of Ulverton spend so much time imagining such a dreary, introspective whinger as Thornby? There has to be a reason for it: something that haunts the English psyche still and makes its victims at once so arrogant and so insecure. An answer, I have no doubt, is buried somewhere in the 584 pages, though there is something characteristic in Thornby's final cry, “You missed it.”

Yet I do not think that all Thorpe's archaeology has dug up this uneasy spirit's bones. It does need, somehow, to be laid to rest.

John Fowles (review date 29 April 1995)

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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 fiction ends with the screening of this ‘masterpiece with no pictures … once only’. This allows Thorpe, en route to this non-event—both première and dernière—to bounce down a dazzling cataract of different mores, milieux and moods, from before 1914 to today.

Reading Still is like looking down a constantly shifting—sometimes from sentence to sentence—kaleidoscope. To begin there may seem a near total absence of normal sequence or continuity; but at the end, after countless flits, glides and zigzags—through an Edwardian household, through contemporary Texas, an affair with Zelda, a maddeningly sharp but kooky American (she calls Richard's intimate gabble the ‘eternal autocue’), the horrors of a First World War gas attack, the almost tribal lunacy of a 1913 English public school (Eton?), an equally self-trammelled and dotty American college of the 1990s—one happily succumbs. The constant sharpness and richness of detail of these very diverse scenes, their poetries and subtleties, their relativity, their heughs and syzygies (words Thorpe himself obviously likes), their strange abruptness yet linkedness … it no longer seems a confusing mystery tour, but a magnificent evocation of the complexity of 1990s life. It is the politically correct, the conventionally ordered, the classically discrete views of reality that come to seem absurd.

Among other things it makes a nonsense of the delusion that the visual now supersedes the verbal. I was delighted to see it so eloquently proven that if you truly want to convey and communicate, you still need words. The theory that the death of the older form of narration is imminent is false. Still is a stiff Laphroaig (we share a similar fancy in malts) to take against all those prone to kowtow before Doc Diarrhoea and his faeces-writing followers (such bad puns speak for one side of Richard the bitter lecturer). Very few writers or directors receive the homages they normally crave. Only our hero's saints, Bresson, Tarkovsky and Dreyer, escape his scorn. As iconoclastic a job is done on a certain Texan institution—here termed ‘Houston’—as was performed in The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh.

Yet Thorpe, behind the spits and spatters of acid and vitriol under that mask, is both more poetic and more serious. He has an acutely sensitive ear for the richness of words and their colloquial use. Another self reminded me of John Osborne's Entertainer by brilliantly evoking the sniggers, false matiness and audience-working of the old music-hall routines. We lack a word for a sharper type, perhaps more male than female, of today. Generation X, les bofs … they don't quite fit. These characters seemed to emerge about a decade ago. They accept the general futility of life and take corruptness and mauvaise foi in anyone ‘important’ for granted. Cynical, sour as lemons, sharp as razor-blades, they think nothing not bettered by denigration, and exult in the pun and instant wisecrack. I'm tempted to hoist Thorpe on his own neologising petard, and suggest we call this very frequent phenomenon (not least on TV) by the name he clamps on his protagonist: Dicky.

But this doesn't sufficiently acknowledge the enormous skill (and humour, from the slapstick to the drily ironic) with which he elaborates both the virtues—the sometimes outrageous puns, the genuine cutting wit, the splendid range (and rage) and command of vocabularies and tones, the ruthless self-mockery—and the sadder cultural things, the pathos behind the emptiness and uncertainties, the very general sense of having been betrayed by history and ecological folly. We haven't been exposed to such a Rabelaisian gusto of language, such an endless jacuzzi of slang, film-crew jargon and erudition since Ulysses and Finnegans Wake: so much quirky humour since Tristram Shandy.

Is Still, like the Virgin, immaculate? Well … it is very long, at times a shade too fluid, too gorgeously moiré. Just here and there the Cockney backchat, the sitting-pigeon massacre of American pseudo-intellectuals and students (‘thinking telegraph-poles’ tasting like the inside of balloons), the mock friendships and put-downs of various ‘big’ names in European culture, don't quite come off; but this is rare. Far more general is the wonderful effervescence of the author's humanity, his uncorking of the dive bouteille of words. Still is so mobile and allusive that one can't pretend it's an easy read. But if you want to claim that you have lived through this century, that you think you ‘understand’ its peculiar English seas, its psychological immensities—not least those of self-deception—here is your book.

Fins de siècle don't have too good a reputation; but Thorpe's dazzling linguistic and existentialist firework-display augurs well at least for the 21st. The novel is not dead. Humanity, in spite of all, still keeps its balance … and its sense of irony.

Tamsin Todd (review date 31 July 1998)

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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 father's heavy field binoculars.” Thorpe tracks Hugh's developing emotions with skill and subtlety, carefully documenting the boy's growing awareness of the themes that will resonate in his life: sacrifice, ghosts, ritual, the powerful force of nature and the duplicity of language. Hugh, who becomes a famous Shakespearean actor and director, is constantly pondering the meanings of words; he learns his father's tour as a district officer in Africa is “statutory”:

“Statutory” made me think of statues. I was stuck in a kind of block of marble, and couldn't find the hole that would let me out. This block of marble grew thicker with thick clothes, and although I felt the cold more than the others, I would deliberately underdress.

This section is strong enough to stand alone; an entire novel could be made of this lyrical, accessible voice. But rather than pursuing the delicate boy's growth into adulthood, Thorpe abandons Hugh at the moment his mother disappears, and makes a six-decade leap to his return to Ulverton at the age of seventy. The voice changes completely. The old Hugh's stream-of-consciousness narration is hard-edged, verging on the psychotic, embedded with references, unreliable, Joycean: “Thumped the skip as I passed and it sounded hollow. By dawnlight from my window it is. Even the awful polka-dotted lampshades. I feel dispersed.” What seemed to be a memoir about Africa between the wars turns into a study of a colourful, though troubled, contemporary English village. In order to solve the mystery of his mother's disappearance, Hugh has to confront the mysticism and violence that are as implicit in Ulverton as they were in Africa. The third section makes a similar leap, moving back to Africa before Hugh's birth where Hugh's mother writes letters filled with echoes of Conrad.

This somewhat jarring triptych works like a jigsaw puzzle, slowly allowing a strong narrative to emerge. Repeated images and motifs link the three sections, giving the novel—and Hugh's life—shape and direction. Images and motifs recur. African rituals metamorphose into millennial conspiracy theories, violent crime and pagan ritual; the traumas Hugh's father and uncle suffered in Africa during the First World War resonate with his own experiences on bomber planes in the Second; the jungle reappears in Ulverton, as the vestiges of an ancient forest. Africa and Ulverton inform each other; ghosts and images pursue Hugh from place to place. History and memory aren't linear processes confined to one country or another. Rather, they can occur in brief flashes, separated by vast distances. A whole history may be derived from an item of clothing, a word, or a letter—and the important story in a man's life may not be his career or love, but rather a few brief moments at the beginning and end of his days.

Pieces of Light is boldly unconventional yet also strongly plotted and a pleasure to read. The reappearance of Ulverton is significant: has it now become Thorpe's fictional territory—a Wessex or a Yoknapatawpha County for the millennium? One senses a grander plot at work.

David Crane (review date 29 August 1998)

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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 and doubts to forebodings too terrible for childhood speech.

The paralysing fear for the young Hugh is that his much-loved mother will never speak of his eighth year because on his seventh birthday he is to be sacrificed, but even when instead he is only sent back to England the old life is over. Through a lonely adolescence under the care of a dottily unsympathetic uncle he manages to preserve the memory of an earlier world, however, and even when his mother mysteriously disappears into the jungle she remains vividly alive for him, a figure he will one day join to recapture the lost Eden of infant love and security.

There never was such a place, of course, and the major part of Thorpe's novel deals with the way in which Hugh as a rather unattractive old man lays bare the stark realities of his childhood and identity. Perhaps it is only the excitement raised by the first section that makes what follows so disappointing, but there is no real comparison between the brilliantly assured opening of Pieces of Light and its over-long and confusing denouement. It is the difference between fiction of the highest and most serious quality and what occasionally feels like mere plot-making; between characterisation of delicate subtlety and characters who might have escaped from a Ruth Rendell; between imaginative writing that hauntingly evokes the mystery of childhood and mystery-writing that sometimes reads like an off-form Wilkie Collins.

Dickens's stroke of genius in Great Expectations was to make the figure of Magwitch the living embodiment of Pip's childhood fears, but the central problem with Thorpe's novel is that he never finds any convincing way of linking the mysteries of Hugh's early years and the revelations of adult life, the magic of Africa where anything seems possible and an England where everything seems contrived. What, in fact, happened to Hugh's mother? What secrets are hidden in the attic? What has his batty uncle been up to with his pagan rituals and talk of sacrifice? What is the connection between the leopard cult of Africa and a bizarre murder in the Ulverton countryside? The blunt answer to all these questions is that it is difficult to believe they really matter, and in the end one is left with the memory of an almost flawless and beautifully written opening that never quite delivers the book it promised. Read it for that opening, though: it could only have been written by a novelist of major talent.

Ra Page (review date 2 October 1998)

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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 sense and grammar over vast chasms of fatuous detail—rattles through the reviewers' imagination with sufficiently textured modulations to make their job meaningful as well as swift. What so many of them fail to notice is that with each tangential layer of metaphoric, anecdotal and flatly descriptive asides, the overall flutter of the self-turning pages is monotonous. To call Thorpe's new novel over-written would be to suggest that effort has gone into it; he comes across as a writer who, though uncommonly garrulous, digressive and thus intriguing, is simply putting in the hours.

Despite the wholesale degradation of childhood recollection in 1990s literature, Thorpe employs the mechanism by which a child may see the world afresh and free of fusty literary traditions. In this case it is the experience of growing up in “darkest” colonial Africa and then, at the age of seven, being sent back to rural England. The disappointment of the novel is that, though alert to these possibilities, its author never fully realises them. As if by accident, Thorpe hits upon a rich natural synergy between the child's imagination and the pagan magic of native Africa, a world teeming with menacing spirits, secret rituals, good luck fetishes and portentous scars. Yet outside this perspective—a goldmine he's quick to forsake—the book succeeds only in glimpses, in moments of perverse clarity that last no longer than sparks, moments of private pathos as when the narrator first visits a zoo, hard on arriving in England, where everything wanted to be let out, “wanted to go back, like me”. Sadly nothing binds such occasional revelations together other than the perfunctory stitching of unanswered questions—the half-baked mystery of half-comprehended events keeping the reader half-awake.

As the pages of the novel turn themselves, out of habit more than curiosity, it transpires that, in Thorpe's case at least, the gift of garrulousness goes little further than a flair for changing the subject—digressing both at the microscopic, prose level and in the novel's macroscopic structures: the moment the young narrator finds his voice in Africa, a durable hybrid of colonial English and bush pidgin, he's shipped “back” to England; the second he comes to terms with England's more suppressed mysteries, the narration leaps forward half a century into the fragmented diary of a now famous theatre director as he retrospectively pieces together a childhood fractured as much by his own attention span as by uprooting circumstance.

Maybe it's a matter of subscribing to the faddish distrust of uniform narration, or perhaps just a realisation that the sporadic sources of the book's promise resemble a poet's material—a discipline Thorpe “graduated” from years earlier—rather than a novelist's, but the author seems actually frightened by the glimmers when they appear, scurrying away from them like a wounded animal. Either way Thorpe should at least reconsider the publisher-led feel-the-thickness criterion of his new career, and listen to the words of his own protagonist's father, when explaining his dislike of the new talking movies: “People talk too much, anyway, and mostly nonsense.”

Justine Jordan (review date 29 October 1998)

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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 think only of Africa and the possibility of return, a hope lost for ever when his mother mysteriously vanishes into the jungle a few years later. At this trauma the childhood memoir breaks off, and the story is taken up decades later in the diary of the elderly Hugh, returning to his uncle's ‘troubled’ house in Ulverton, where he sifts through his memories and the ‘strong magic’ of his African relics, puzzling over his mother's disappearance.

Adam Thorpe's extraordinary first novel, Ulverton, laid the past down like sediment, each chapter a slice of time, beginning in 1650 and ending ‘Here’, and in that way producing a wholly convincing village history in which distant events continue to reverberate through folk memory and legend, delicately but distinctly echoing in place-names and local rhymes. Since then, however, he has preferred to have his narrators grapple with history inside their own lives. The hero of his second novel, the baggy monster Still, is a filmmaker poised on the brink of the millennium, who promises a history of the century and an explication of where it went wrong, but finds himself circling around the points of impact in his own past, focusing ever more closely on the tiny episodes—and tinier glances and gestures within them—which set off the events that spiral us somehow to here and now. The multiplying detail of the past prevents him ever finding the genesis of the horror of the century before the clock chimes, marking the start of the next one.

Still's historian had a grand project, doomed to failure. The narrator of Pieces of Light is also an archaeologist of time, but the mood of this novel is bleaker and the rummage through history blinkered by self-interest. While Still ran up against the impossibility of locating beginnings, the characters in Pieces of Light suffer from a yearning to return to or reconfigure a time before trauma. As Hugh's war-ravaged father continues his colonisation of the primordial jungle, his equally shell-shocked Uncle Edward fosters the ‘wildwood’ at the bottom of his garden, hoping that it will one day cover England again, as it did when the climate was African. His passion for prehistoric finds, his championing of nature's ‘vital force’ and his brandishing of mistletoe at Christmas develop into a fixation with re-enactments of ancient sacrificial rituals in full druidical regalia. Hugh despises his uncle's prehistoric poses and cod animism, but he, too, is obsessed with the search for ‘vital spirit’ and becomes a Shakespeare conservative, dedicated to the re-creation of 16th-century stances: ‘I'm not turning the clock back, I'm taking it off the wall and mending it.’ However, these gestures towards the past, to theatre's beginnings in ritual and shamanism, are pale imitations and when the Ulverton mummers beg a leopardskin from Hugh for the Christmas play, they can't put it on without collapsing into giggles, while the mummers' director is so inspired by Edward's writings that he's driven to the revolutionary act of putting up an anti-McDonald's sticker on a local landmark.

It is a debased Ulverton that Hugh returns to—as if someone ‘had run off with the real thing, leaving a fake’. After the vibrantly caught child's-eye view of the Africa memoir, his diary reveals a pompous, mannered old man; where Still's logorrhoeic narrator, gazing out over millennial London, mimicked the verbal tics and fireworks of Martin Amis, we are now in country-pub Kingsley territory. But as Hugh delves into the mystery of his mother's disappearance, remembering his malarial visions of her at his bedside, and investigating the local legend of the ‘Red Lady’ believed to be his mother's ghost, he begins to feel the spirits of the past as strongly as he felt them in his childhood. His detective work, at first jocular and unamazed—‘Good grief, sounds like something Wilkie Collins might have put on in his drawing room’—takes him dangerously close to the sources of his trauma, finally implicating him in a murder that looks like satanic ritual. With a prissily Conradian ‘Horrible. Absolutely horrible,’ the diary breaks off as the memoir did, to be resumed as a piece of asylum therapy, intended to help him put into words the wellspring of his horror and thus move beyond it.

Hugh writes the story of his discoveries about the Red Lady in the form of letters to his mother, as though he were back at boarding school, and his relief at the return to the past bubbles through in a resumption of his Thirties Boy's Own style: ‘I'm doing jolly fine, on the whole.’ Ulverton had a slyly godlike perspective on the local lore that displayed the seepage of the past into the present: here we see the making of a myth—the Chinese whispers, human error and blurring of identity that go to make up the composite Red Lady in whom Hugh is trying to locate his vanished mother. But in the tangle of Ulverton's ghosts past and present Hugh finds it increasingly hard to hang onto his own personality: the locals persist in calling him by his hated uncle's surname, and when, hoping for elucidation, he rescues the village historian we met in Ulverton—now, like so much of the place, cancerous—from his hospice, he is nearly incarcerated in his place. His mother's spirit becomes conflated with that of Rachael, the love of his life stolen by his uncle, and he is torn between the struggle to confront his primal demons and the equally doomed search for a ‘rational’ explanation: the ‘dormant tendrils’ of possible reasons for his mother's disappearance that uncoil in his mind as he tries to spin a coherent story from the dead-ends of history are the stirrings of madness. The calm vantage-point of Ulverton smoothed the past into a pattern of inevitability: here reality is built on such a perilous tower of incident and coincidence—when Hugh finds the letter that contains the terrible secret of his history, it is almost blown away by the wind—that in the end it is dwarfed by symbol, and the idea of death in a revenge tragedy or pagan ritual looms larger than the reality of the play killing. The act of murder becomes less important than murderous desire. ‘Real, and also unreal!’ as Hugh says of theatre. ‘Like masks or fetishes or words, words, words!’

Hugh's horrific discovery hinges, not on the fact that he was ousted from paradise, but that he is the progeny of the serpent within it: there is no prelapsarian idyll to return to. The point is made not so much by Hugh's incoherent narrative as by the poetic correspondences within it: Hugh, his real father and the murder victim all lose an eye, and when even a glass eye from the leopardskin associated with the murder is mysteriously displaced, the symbolic structure becomes (blindingly) obvious. The connections Hugh makes between Rachael and his mother and the equivalence of his desire—a beginner's guide to Freudian analysis—have a similar clunkiness; as do the periodic clues and inducements to read on (‘They say the details are important, but I might go on too long. I might lose you before the very bad thing …’). In fact, Thorpe excels at detail: the densely remembered episodes of Hugh's boyhood and wartime years hold more conviction than the overtly gripping mystery that seeks to give the book its structure. In these episodes Thorpe subtly reminds us that everyone, natives of Cameroon and Ulverton alike, has their fetishes and juju, whether ancestor worship or superstitious rituals for protection from German bombs, gorilla teeth or taxidermy, medicine men or homeopathy. Even Hugh's uptight aunt uses human hair to keep the deer off the roses.

Thorpe is telling us both the old story—that there's horror in the forest, whether it's an African jungle or an English wood—and its modern, psychoanalytic version: that what lurks there are our own inchoate fears. Hugh doesn't need to don one of the African masks that terrified him as a child to feel, as his frenzy mounts, that ‘my frontal lobe is bare bone and tinted with ochre. It makes me feel very self-conscious, but I mention it to no one, because I know it's not real.’ But myth demands closure, and in Pieces of Light the symbols tie up where the narrative doesn't, and inevitably the discrepancy jars. When Hugh is faced with the truth in his mother's letters from Africa, he discounts them as forgeries. He is left conjuring the jungle as an Eden innocent of human civilisation, promising his long-lost mother ‘a certain long moment lost in Africa’ that need never end.

Pieces of Light is a layered, complex and hugely ambitious novel and Thorpe's powers are such that, as with Still (a novel one alternately hopes and fears will never end), even its flaws can seem deliberate. It's appropriate that a book about modern man's incapacity to deal with myth should fail to transmogrify Hugh's breakdown to mythic status; that a ghost story about absence should refuse to solve its own mystery. Pieces of Light deepens and problematises Thorpe's fictional project—life now under the accumulated weight of then—demonstrating that the ragged edges between ancient and modern are less pleasing than their synthesis, but equally significant. It is the incapacity to accept this that leads Hugh's uncle into a malign prehistory theme-park and Hugh himself to madness.

The novel closes with Hugh's mother's letters, written on her arrival in the African forest ‘so weighted with the heat and vitality of life’, her words perilously preserved on faded, ant-nibbled carbon paper sealed in a trunk with Hugh's baby clothes. Her voice has the same buoyant immediacy as his childhood memoir, so that stylistically Africa does seem, as Hugh believes it to be, more ‘real’ than England. For most of the book his mother's symbolic weight has been measured as absence, but after Hugh's mannered prose and his clumsy evocation of her as primary love object, she appears as the most convincingly imagined character in the book, a mixture of postwar seen-everything briskness and tender, jazz-loving idealist. It is a pity that it is her voice that falls silent, never to emerge from the forest.

John Greening (review date 23 July 1999)

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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 hands
scrabbling for the heart's impatience,
its pluck, pounding our palms upon a drum
that did not sound, then do not blame us
who hold the taste of their death in our mouths …

The “secret narrative” in “Ghosts” is of an attempt to resuscitate two drowned swimmers on a beach. Elegiac lyricism, haunting landscape, a refusal to give redundant biographical detail, yet the feeling of genuine experience: a masterly poem.

At a time when regional assemblies are making the English feel unsure of themselves, Thorpe returns to the popular English sources, to Rufus and Cnut, those royal meeting-places of myth and history: the stone at the heart of the forest, the figure on the sea's edge. Ironically, Thorpe himself lives in France, though perhaps this enables him to avoid mere nostalgia; as in the multilayered Ulverton, Thorpe's sense of England is not only deep and historical but coolly contemporary. “New Arrival” begins with Edward Thomas—“The announcements mangle the names / of nineteenth century villages: Streatham, Norwood, Bermondsey”—but turns to compare the entire scene to something out of Tarkovsky, concluding banally: “We live in a world / of ladders and paint-splashed foot-stools”. (A “Whitsun Weddings” for our time, perhaps.) The poem is essentially optimistic—a journey to London's museums, a newborn niece—or at least it believes in survival. But what it most terribly evokes is “Cousin Ruth, my age; / at five, on a journey, she slapped some seats / like these, full of BR dust and something // strange that turned her blind and simple”.

The question of extinction hangs like a cloud of that unmentionable, poisonous substance over the entire collection—a fossil embedded in the seats at the Nuremberg stadium puts a brief decade of atrocity in perspective, and “Twitchers” even sees God as a barmy bird-watcher, keeping an eye out for those best fitted to go in his notebook. The one image on the book's cover is of a single flint: “remember and survive!” it seems to say. But the shifting, feckless voices from the dream-like Neanderthals in the long final sequence are fated to die out. We find ourselves here in a territory somewhere between Hughes's wodwo-land and that of Golding's Inheritors, where “no people have yet been born this year” and the first bird to be spotted is already extinct. Thorpe uses syntax and line breaks to keep us guessing, and to make us feel that “Something is always ushering us”.

Alex Clark (review date 7 January 2000)

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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 deprivation, tradition and modernity.

Elsewhere, the jobs on show are almost defiantly old-fashioned: a blacksmith, a stone-worker, a binman, a mechanic, the colonial manager of an African sawmill. In “Iron”, the occupation itself is almost forgotten, as the wife of a blacksmith reflects on the way her life has been blighted by metal, from the moment when a bomb deprived her of her family to the freak accident in which she lost a leg, crushed against the iron bench her husband made for her. In this ingenious and horrifying story, present pain is mitigated by the narrator's faith in God's complicated system of checks and balances. Her leg, the death of her brothers and sister, and the loss of Hitler (a moment when it seemed that “God had gone away behind the clouds”) are weighed against the survival of her son, an expert in plastics, in an accident.

Thorpe presents these working lives as first-person narratives, often with a silent interlocutor. In the reminiscences of a binman, we are aware of the figure of a journalist, whom the speaker is dodging in an effort to avoid telling his most sensational memory, a peculiar variation on the ghost story. The suggested listener or questioner recedes in the later stories, leaving the characters to chatter on in the darkness, giving us their recollections—these stories are almost always backward-looking—in a determinedly archaeological tone, one which is frequently tortuous and obscure, semi-truthful though apparently honest.

Thorpe is a poet as well as a novelist, and his language is painstakingly precise, however unsure and confused his characters may be. Each story has its own vocabulary, its specialist terms and technical language, and this gives the impression of a writer overcommitted to the story as an exercise, a patient display of learning and skill. Where these stories fail, it is generally because Thorpe forgets what keeps the reader turning the page, and withholds the touch of humour that would lighten his earnestness and seriousness of purpose. There is something in his range, of character, of setting and of voice, that is self-conscious; occasionally this virtuoso ventriloquism is irritating.

Shifts is an ambitious book, more so than its initial theme would seem to allow. The title story, in which an illegal alien, a Ghanaian adrift in London in the 1960s, assumes the identity of a friendly Nigerian who has disappeared, so that he can get a job washing BOAC crockery and cutlery in a greasy Heathrow shed, is wonderfully poignant and well achieved. And “Sawmill”, which returns to the African setting of Thorpe's previous novel, Pieces of Light, exploits the comedy of an Englishman driven to a desperate act of self-sacrifice in his determination to keep both masters and servants happy.

There are flashes of brilliance in this collection, alongside some disappointing longueurs. Possibly, the theme of work, so iconic and all-consuming, has been made to work too hard, eclipsing the real subject of the book, which revolves around the individual desire to make sense of bewildering, painful experience.

Nicholas Fern (review date 22 January 2000)

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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 behind a desk and peering through clouds of rolling tobacco, his reflections would be a joy for any actor to translate in a television adaptation. Were it not an imaginative work the piece would be quite a document.

The characterisation is so well realised that one does not mind being so swiftly ushered from one emotion to another. One's disappointment at discovering that the rest of the collection is not a series of talking heads is soon forgotten when the trick is repeated in different formats. Equally effective is the device of a narrator speaking on behalf of a single colleague. One such example provides the best story in the collection. ‘Sawmill’ is a perfectly constructed tale from Conrad's jungle. The representative of a logging company is sent to visit Mason, the notoriously cavalier manager of an isolated factory, only to find his camp uninhabited. The story of how Mason lost his arm is the result. The piece is also remarkable for an ostensibly unpromising scene—the fall of a tree. In the simple inventory of its immediate effects, this event is rendered as moving as a human story. A few sentences of unsentimental prose achieve far more than any amount of sanctimonious eco-babble ever could. Friends of the Earth should take note.

Another lost limb is the fate of the German woman in ‘Iron’ whose marriage to a blacksmith many years earlier converges with an out of control truck on the porch of her house. Postwar Germany becomes a surprisingly engaging setting in a story that could have seduced by pathos alone.

This is not to say there are no weak numbers in the collection, but Thorpe's creations are more illuminating than any number of fly-on-the-wall documentaries about traffic wardens and the like. As for the premise of the collection, our work probably defines us less today than it ever has done—we merely never thought to deny its influence before now. Whatever the facts of the matter, Thorpe himself has more important things on his mind.

Michael Thorpe (review date March 2000)

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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 16-year-old Quiri, who secretly teaches the boy his own tribal language. Hugh learns of many mysteries—of the notorious Mr. Hargreaves, his father's predecessor as D.O. (district officer) who had killed in sacrificial manner the “hairy man,” or gorilla, which is buried nearby and whose spirit must be guarded against. Such things reach him through a veil of half-understanding, as do his mother Charlotte's hints that he—“the only white child in the whole of West and Central Africa, that I know of”—will not long remain African.

Fearing that he will “go native,” as whites such as Hargreaves were liable to do, she intends sending Hugh “home” when he is seven. Hugh misreads her hints as meaning he may be sacrificed: He knows from Quiri it had been a local custom, suppressed by the British, that he innocently equates with Christianity's “and he gave his only begotten son.” His child's logic broaches a related theme, which questions how civilization is different from and superior to paganism. Another is voiced by a trader to his anxious, rational mother and overheard by Hugh: “Fact and fiction are just what Africa makes sure you can't sort out, Mrs. Arkwright.”

Although such complex themes will burden the mature Hugh, as a child his early world is paradise, his African dream “to settle with my parents and Quiri beside the crater lake,” to grow to maturity and die “an old and wise man, to feel the twine of my life cut and to float away to join the other ancestors.” He has seen death, feared hostile spirits, and knows nature—the mamba or “Billy Hartzia's” snails (bilharzia)—can kill. Quiri has taught him how to make a fetish, for magical protection against those. Before Hugh leaves for England, Quiri cuts a tribal mark in his nape. The England he is “sacrificed to” portends a cold and dead season; his dispatch to his mother's brother Edward and his Aunt Joy is felt as a rejection. He confronts his mother with a moment of shocking estrangement when he exaggerates (hoping it will save him from exile) his difficulty in seeing from one eye. Though the true significance of his mother's shock is hidden from him, this adumbrates the motif of sight: Hugh, who later literally becomes one-eyed, is a seeker who glimpses “pieces of light.”

THE FALL INTO ENGLAND

Hugh's mother takes him to Ulverton, a village in the rolling Berkshire downland, where he is to live in the dark, rambling house Illythia, with his middle-aged, childless uncle and aunt. He feels like “a piece broken off something.” In what H. J. Massingham calls “this wild and inspiriting land” (English Downland, 1936), he encounters no familiar spirits and seems odd to other children who are repelled by his talk of fetishes and protective charms. Their parents think him a pagan. His mother's return to Africa leaves him feeling betrayed and isolated. This intensifies as the years pass: Sent away to prep school, he suffers his full share of baitings and beatings, relieved only by his mother's brief annual visits. His painful love for her is “too real.”

Uncle Edward who, like Hugh's father, had lost his faith in the Great War's trenches, now pursues archaeological research, excavating prehistoric graves and studying Druidism. Hugh's mother thinks “a time before history offered him a way out.” Soured by the falsely sacrificial war, fascinated by the human propensity for self-destruction, Edward becomes obsessed with the possibility of genuine human sacrifice. Hugh's mother takes this up, in a conversation Hugh overhears, and explains that the practice isn't “quite dead.” She describes the practice of lycanthropy in West Africa and the murderous leopard societies. When she talks of the leopard man's borfima, or fetish, she says it must be kept oiled or it turns against its owner. Hearing this, Hugh fears his personal fetish bundle will disintegrate.

Certainly, it cannot save him from a hated school, nor keep his mother and father (who visits once) in England. The adult world, as he glimpses it, is discordant and quickly disintegrates. Aunt Joy soon dies, estranged by Edward's obsession, leaving Hugh alone with an uncle he secretly believes would sacrifice him, the “nearest and dearest,” to ensure the spread of a treasured scrap of ancient forest (the wildwood), the English counterpart to Hugh's jungle. This fear arises after Charlotte disappears into that jungle—“very bad news” that, to Edward's amazement, the 12-year-old Hugh receives smiling. Denying her death, he imagines her gone to “a hot, green paradise” by the crater lake where, for fleeting days before he left Africa, he felt blissfully happy with his parents.

STUMBLING UPON THE PAST

A transitional third part plunges us into a series of dated diary entries. Although no year is given, Hugh is now, at seventy, retiring from a successful career as actor and theater director—a likely vocation for one who peopled his lonely childhood with individual performances of Shakespeare. As a director he was noted for reviving seventeenth-century acting techniques (derided by a hostile critic as “a fetishistic superstition for the past”). Thorpe's acknowledgments include Joseph Roach's The Player's Passion (1995), where such passages as these seem apt to what ensues in the novel: “The passions are easily summoned from the lower regions, but, like devils, once summoned are not easily put back” and, of the protean actor, “he who can assume any shape is in danger of losing his own.”

In retirement Hugh plans a book on his theatrical practice and considers turning his long-dead uncle's derelict Illythia into a theatrical research center. Returning there, for the first time since Edward's second wife's death fifteen years before, he is drawn instead into an inadequately buried past. Sorting his papers, Hugh comes across the memoir we have read and revisits it, remembering it was an attempt, encouraged by a Dr. Wolff, to come to terms with his mother's disappearance. That was thirty years ago, but he still believes “there was no death.” In Ulverton, the elderly Gracie Hobbs claims “I saw your mother walking on the day of her death,” while mysterious sightings of a Red Lady in local lore prompt Hugh's recollection that his mother bought a bright red coat before her last return to Africa. When he finds in Illythia's attic a trunk from Africa with a label dated 21 December, 1933, “the most likely date of her disappearance” there, he wonders if she actually returned to England because he was then seriously ill. Did she disappear in England?

Hugh's lifelong obsession with his mother is only equaled by his loathing for his uncle, the “old goat” who, mysteriously, deprived him of “my one and only true love.” There is some suggestion that this was his Aunt Rachael, Edward's second wife, remembered by Hugh as “a sad, bitter mystery” but also, he is disgusted to learn, in salacious stories told in the village. More disturbingly, he renews an old suspicion that his uncle may have been crazy enough to sacrifice his “red” mother, a symbol of life and “the nearest and dearest,” to further the mystical renewal of the land. A further sinister suggestion attaches to Hugh's rediscovery of the leopard skin his father had tanned, whose animal spirit would, according to Quiri, one day reclaim it.

Hugh skirts the unopened trunk, fearful of disturbing discoveries. His last diary entry reads baldly “Horrible. Absolutely horrible.” Since Hugh has begun to speculate about what Conrad's Marlow termed “unspeakable rites,” one inevitably recalls Mr. Kurtz's last recorded words in Heart of Darkness, “The horror, the horror.”

DYSFUNCTIONAL COMMUNICATIONS

The novel's longest, fourth part resumes the narrative a year later, surprisingly in the form of letters in the present tense to Hugh's mother. Since his horrible shock, he will not speak and is apparently now in a sanatorium where he has been encouraged to correspond with Charlotte in a therapeutic narrative of his haunted life since her disappearance: “I am to go with the pain, they said.”

We must grasp the novel backwards, reliving with Hugh the events that caused his breakdown and the mystery that envelops him which neither he nor we can wholly unravel. This new memoir leads to belated recognition of his “dysfunctional” life. At its heart are obsessive, ill-requited attachments to two women: his vanished mother and his first and only love Rachael, who, in a shocking act of betrayal, conveyed in the first of his life's two shattering letters, announces she has indeed become Uncle Edward's second wife and thus, ironically, Hugh's aunt. Engineering his misfortunes, he believes, was “Nuncle,” the crazed, misanthropic “demon.”

Hugh describes to his mother the shy, idealizing growth of his love for the seemingly free-spirited Rachael, though feeling in retrospect that “I was abandoning you, Mother, for a girl I scarcely knew.” He plans their first idyllic lovemaking for May Day on the downs, as if it were a sacred rite, but it will prove only the beginning of a bad chain of events. Ominously, Rachael becomes fascinated by Nuncle's apocalyptic mysticism, a hybrid of Nordic myth—played out in his Thule Society with boisterous and suspect “jolly Germans”—and African beliefs that, Hugh comments, “he poisoned … for me, so I let them fade away.” But they will resurface.

World War II fatally separates the lovers, and it is Hugh's turn to perform in a sacrificial drama far beyond Nuncle's imaginings. As a flight observer, he is involved in the bombing of Germany: Wotan bombing “the jollymen [turned Nazis] of the Thule Society” and, with less justice, creating “blistered babies and charred old women.” Thorpe convincingly imagines the tenuous lives and disturbed minds of Hugh and his fellow aviators, with their fetishes and superstitions (one recalls Randall Jarrell's poem “Eighth Air Force”). Thorpe has, like Pat Barker, author of the Great War “Regeneration” trilogy, no direct war experience but was in 1987 cofounder of the English Newbury Campaign Against Cruise Missiles.

In Hugh's life, the pattern hardens. Saturation bombing, sacrificing innocents, was in its time justified as a morally superior necessity. Other sacrificial acts may be seen as those of Hugh's father and his kind to “civilize” Africa and Nuncle's fantasy of an England cleansed of humanity and returned to pristine wildwood. Hugh's worst suspicion of this man, whom he sometimes compares to Hitler, is that Nuncle may actually have sacrificed Charlotte. He links local lore of her apparition with the prehistoric corpse of the Red Lady of Paviland. Finally, with growing paranoia, Hugh sees himself as sacrificed, initially, as Rachael had once suggested, at his mother's hands—“dropping you off here like a piece of baggage.”

Opening the mysterious trunk reveals a fetish box, containing “a red-tinted skull-bit, Mother, though I'm not sure it's yours.” (Prehistoric corpses, like the Red Lady, were covered with ocher, meant like blood to strengthen the dead en route to the underworld.) The contents of this box and the rediscovered but strangely disappearing leopard skin now become properties in a sensational mystery that thickens when Hugh becomes further disturbed by the salacious gossip that besmirches the memory of his young love for Rachael. This horrible discovery may or may not be connected with the grisly murder of a villager who has incensed Hugh with obscenely suggestive talk of “Randy Rachael.” Hugh volunteers the theory that the death is one only a wild beast could have caused—but in Ulverton, albeit once Wolf Town? Or was the killer, in a state of animal-spirit possession, actually Hugh? The novel here turns gothic, and Hugh himself parallels Illythia with the House of Usher.

A murder suspect for a while, Hugh is soon released, but the reader remains uncertain. The narrator is seriously disturbed and acts like a hunted animal at bay. Several factors combine to unbalance him: unresolved suspicion about his mother's death, a second terrible letter revealing that “I am not who I thought I was,” and unexorcised war guilt. Hugh acknowledges that wisdom urges “Put away childish things” but asks, “What remains, Mother?” Not fame and success: only “a certain long moment lost in Africa.” As his letters close, he promises his mother to return there. The rest is silence.

CHARLOTTE'S LETTERS

The concluding part of Pieces of Light prints the trunk's most disturbing contents, copies of ten letters typed by Hugh's mother to Edward and his wife from November 2, 1920, on her arrival in the Cameroons, to May 1, 1922, when she reports she has a son. What the last letter relates of his origin gives Hugh a sense of violation so intense that he convinces himself his uncle forged the whole “bundle of foul lies.” Yet the earlier letters, “so young and bright and funny”—qualities beyond his uncle—convince us they are genuine. Their ebullient style resembles that of the Victorian Mary Kingsley's Travels in West Africa, which Charlotte read on the voyage out. They also illustrate the talent for pastiche Thorpe displays in his first novel, Ulverton.

In the later letters Charlotte's style darkens, becomes Conradian. Her lively curiosity and early idealism give way to a growing cynicism and fear of the “occult rhythms” of Africa, to which her gin-drinking husband seems to be succumbing, as had his predecessor Hargreaves, a character akin to Conrad's Kurtz, though more fully revealed.

The letters partly unravel the mystery and cause of Hugh's breakdown. In the novel's structure, the disenchantment Charlotte undergoes contrasts with her son's memoir of an Eden he “never wanted to leave”—and perhaps never has. One may interpret Hugh's mature preoccupation with “theatrical decorum” as a ritual of restraint, like the suppression, not exorcism, of his savage war experience. He knows “I can be a man and a beast”—the “beast,” presumably, kills without conscience. This is not to read “beast” as synonymous with “African”: rather, there is an essential human affinity, in the sense pinpointed by Malinowski, the anthropologist—“superstition, blind faith and complete disorientation are as dangerous a canker in the heart of Western civilization as in Africa” (introduction, Facing Mount Kenya, by Jomo Kenyatta, 1938). Mary Kingsley, long before the Great War or Hitler's menacing thirties, had in turn-of-the-century Africa seen each Christian European nation as “ready to take out a patent for a road to Heaven and make that road out of men's blood and bones and the ashes of burnt homesteads.” Strangely, though, Hitler's “massive ceremony of sacrifice” (Harold Kaplan) is only indirectly glanced at.

Pieces of Light joins the ever-lengthening line of British anti- and post-colonial fiction, from Conrad to Lessing, Golding, J. G. Farrell, and, recently, Tim Jeal's For God and Glory, to articulate the split in the “civilized” psyche and revise the meanings of civilization and savagery in the searing light of twentieth-century history. As Hugh, in silent exile from his African Eden, writes, “No other beast talks.”

Matthew Beaumont (review date 22 June 2001)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797

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 everyday life. Modernism itself, as a phenomenology of the futile, could then be interpreted as a kind of homoeopathic cure for the futility of the post-war period, or of modernity more generally.

Several modernist writers are mentioned in Adam Thorpe's new novel, [Nineteen Twenty-One,] which, as its title intimates, is set in 1921. There is an allusion to “Mrs Woolf's latest novel”, and, more significantly, one to “that strange odyssey of Mr Joyce's that everyone was talking about”. Thorpe's protagonist, Joseph Munrow, has in fact read parts of Ulysses in an American magazine. And he has found that, though it seemed at first “confused”, “it had affected his mind—he experienced everything in a stream of tiny curious details, even the January cold on the hairs of his cheeks became vivid”. Joyce's meditation on the futile has a transfigurative effect on Munrow, for it defamiliarizes his tattered relationship to the tired post-war world, renewing or refreshing it through a sort of existential frisson.

Munrow himself is a novelist, one who is trying to write about the war. The difficulty is that he didn't fight in it. At first, he was a conscientious objector, though unconscientiously enough. Then he half-heartedly allowed himself to be drafted to fight, but was swiftly invalided out of the Army after inhaling mustard gas in manoeuvres some distance from the Front. Munrow tries to make the best of this frankly sorry situation, arguing with himself that, “since he was not smeared over with the waxy dullness of shock”, he is therefore free to write with virile freshness about the war. But it is just this that he cannot achieve. For everything seems to him to be dusted with an enervating sense of defeat-in-victory. Writing is a displacement of his feelings of impotence, simultaneously a repression and a sublimation of his failure to have fought. “He would write the first great War book if it killed him.”

In his second novel, Ulverton, Adam Thorpe explored some of the more redemptive aspects of war. In a section set during 1914, the narrator depicts the moment before the war finally broke out as a point of purposeful suspension, a time at which, briefly at least, people felt “unburdened and happy”. This sense of purpose and potential fulfilment has been closed off to Joseph Munrow. And he cannot now recuperate it in his literary labour. He doesn't write the first Great War book, and he isn't killed. Rather, he is slowly corroded by a culture of futility that, like the flu which destroyed his father, seems to be the symptom of some terminal spiritual condition. In one powerful passage, Monrow compares civilization to “a soldier who had broken his neck and somehow walked about completely unaware for months, until an X-ray examination spotted the dark streak”.

With a subtle and insinuating sympathy, Nineteen Twenty-One traces the hopeless attempts of its protagonist to experience the pith of things, to escape the anaesthetic atmosphere of the time. It is for the most part well written. But this is ultimately a novel about not being able to write a novel, and it is impossible to escape the suspicion that it lacks a sense of purposefulness itself. Its prose is often a little flat. And at the book's abrupt and somewhat arbitrary conclusion, it trails a whiff of the very futility that it has carefully evoked. So for all that Adam Thorpe has written a refreshingly anti-triumphalist account of England after the First World War, he finally leaves the reader feeling indifferent.

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

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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 book is forgivable in the context of the hero's literary ambitions. Joseph Munrow, Thorpe's protagonist, has, too, sufficient distinctiveness to lift him out of the genre rut. Now in his early twenties, he is a veteran with a secret: originally exempted from military service on medical grounds, called up in the last months of the war, his ravaged lungs the result of panic in a gas-attack exercise rather than enemy action. Gauche, keen and reclusive, Munrow is an ambiguous figure and part of his appeal—particularly in the conversations with his friend Baz—lies in the thought of a character whose attitudes are not yet fully formed.

Holed up in a remote cottage in the Chilterns, Joseph is laboriously at work on the great Flanders novel. These early scenes—the pen scratching quietly under the eaves, the enigmatic rural types going about their business, flaring heat beyond the window—are convincingly done, full of neat little descriptions of scene and incident, culminating in Joseph's dealings with the son-in-law of the village publican's widow. Brooding Walter, raptly confidential about the Flanders flies (‘Millions of eggs they lay. Very impatient to lay’ em') claims to have been standing next to the late Mr Hamilton when a German bullet took him: avid to put this in his book, Joseph is conscious that the truth may be less clear-cut.

Shortly afterwards, in the interests of his research, Joseph accompanies Baz on a grave-visitor's trip to France. The love interest (god-fearing teenage Tillie) makes its appearance, and there follows a not wholly plausible evening in which Joseph narrowly fails to seduce her, watches a couple of local prostitutes gamely pleasuring each other and finally ends up in the passionate embrace of a mysterious German widow met among the graves.

The remainder of the novel—quite a long remainder—unravels some of the emotional knots thereby brought into being. Baz throws over his blameless fiancee and elopes with Tillie, while further confusion is sown by the reappearance of Rupert Rail, Joseph's Cafe Royal-haunting doppelganger, previously met on a sketcher's trip to Cornwall. Among other aspects of the denouement, the great Flanders novel narrowly avoids the flames. If Nineteen Twenty-One sometimes seems to lose its way a little—Thorpe has the irritating habit of cutting short chapters that are crying out for immediate resolution—it is full of arresting moments: Joseph's embarrassed meeting with his double in a restaurant full of prurient fellow-artists; a weird encounter amid the post-war trenches when a Chinese labourer beckons him into an abandoned dug-out to ‘shake hands with General Haig’ (a khaki-clad skeleton with a whisky bottle for a face); the deranged village schoolmaster bobbing restlessly through the long summer grass.

Patrick Skene Catling (review date 17 May 2003)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647

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 of 12, is the only member of his family who seems to have a chance of clinging to normality. He is not well informed—he still thinks that babies emerge from their mothers' navels—but he is intelligent, curious, observant and imaginative. He believes, with superstitious anxiety, in Heaven and Hell and that mysterious, transitional region in between.

‘I reckoned,’ he recalls, ‘that I must beat all records for misery; in fact I'd get the Olympic gold for it.’ A little later, he says:

I could beat the world record for saying the rosary … like a mad old lady and getting to a million Hail Marys and becoming famous, with TV cameras around me and my picture in the newspapers. Becoming completely holy.

In a less frivolously expressed appraisal, in a letter composed only in his head, never written, he tells a radio agony aunt of his family predicament. It is a letter like the ones received by Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts. Gilles sums up:

I live in Bagneux, near Paris. My sister is in a mental ward because she got nervously depressed. She likes to dance in the nude, in front of people! My mother had my baby brother, but he has a very bad fault in his brain and is in a special home. My father isn't my real father, he's my uncle and he drinks quite a lot. He's taken me fishing only once. My real father slipped over on a wet floor and died in 1960, when I was five. My other sister Nathalie died after one day, before I was born. We have been robbed of all our stock of industrial vacuum cleaners, but I think it's my uncle who's done it. What should I do?

Gilles's sister is a radical activist in that period when communism was a potent force in France. Before her withdrawal into insanity, she gets Gilles to help her stick anti-American posters on public buildings at night. At the same time, Gilles is exposed to his uncle's right-wing xenophobic raving.

He believed … we should drop an atom bomb on the Vietcong, and that foreigners who couldn't sing the Marseillaise word-perfect should be guillotined.

Furthermore, the boy is infected by his mother's naive snobbery when they visit ‘posh’ relations.

Adam Thorpe, through Gilles's chatty vernacular, shows with great skill how escapist fantasies are superseded by shocking realities. Driving by the Sorbonne during the student riots of May 1968, Mme Gobain thinks at first that the commotion is merely the Friday-evening rush-hour traffic. Gilles soon understands more. Police truncheons and tear-gas reveal the modern world, but his hero remains Marcel Marceau.

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