Thorpe is concerned with the minutiae of historical and social change, what he calls “the rich tilth of an unrecorded history.” A poet, Thorpe reconstructs with rich and remarkable authenticity the languages of the past, each of the twelve episodes being narrated in one or more spoken or written voices of the participants, ranging from seventeenth century Puritanism to a contemporary film script. Some episodes have a strong narrative line; others are practically plotless; and some require the reader, like an archaeologist, to piece together an ambiguous story from fragments.
ULVERTON opens in 1650 when a returning veteran of Cromwell’s army is murdered by his wife and the man she married while he was away. In 1989, the victim’s skeleton is unearthed by a descendant of the murderers constructing a development that will help spoil what remains of old Ulverton. In the ten intervening episodes, we encounter a sin-obsessed clergyman, a farmer obsessed with improving fertilizer while his wife goes insane and he carries on an affair with a servant, an adulterous aristocratic wife, an illiterate mother whose son awaits hanging for supposedly stealing a hat, an elderly carpenter cadging drinks by telling about fooling his workaholic master, a group of rebellious agricultural workers on trial in 1830 for smashing farm machinery, a woman photographer in 1859, a ploughman reminiscing about village life, the excavation of a prehistoric barrow during the beginning of World War I, and the diary of a frustrated secretary during the death of George VI and coronation of Elizabeth II, in whose honor ancient wagons and farm tools are to be burned in a bonfire. “Why can’t folk leave the past alone?” asks the secretary. At the end, the village is surrounded by a roaring motorway, houses computer firms, and seems destined for inevitable urbanization.
ULVERTON not only re-creates “the rich and complex pages of our ancient country” but is a linguistic tour de force. A thoughtful reflection on time and change, it is a distinguished contribution to the modern British novel.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXIX, November 15, 1992, p.581.
Library Journal. CXVII, November 15, 1992, p.102.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 17, 1993, p.3.
The New Republic. CCVIII, April 26, 1993, p.42.
New Statesman and Society. V, May 1, 1992, p.38.
The New York Review of Books. XL, April 8, 1993, p.22.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, January 17, 1993, p.12.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, September 28, 1992, p.66.
The Times Literary Supplement. May 8, 1992, p.20.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, January 10, 1993, p.1.
Ulverton is a fictional equivalent of Stephen W. Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988); the main focus is on the passing of time in a fictional village in the region of England that Adam Thorpe, like Thomas Hardy, calls Wessex. Beginning in 1650, Ulverton dramatizes the changes in village life and values every thirty or forty years. There is nothing particularly new in an episodic novel spanning centuries; the once-popular novelist Jeffery Famol did so in Voices from the Dust (1932), as did Virginia Woolf in Orlando (1928). Famol’s fiction is romantic melodrama, however, while Woolf is concerned more with androgyny than with history, whereas Thorpe is concerned with the minutiae of historical and social change, what he calls “the rich tilth of an unrecorded history.” What is really experimental about Ulverton is Thorpe’s use of voices. A poet, Thorpe reconstructs with rich and remarkable authenticity the languages of the past in this his first novel, each of the twelve episodes being narrated in one or more spoken or written voices of the participants, some of them nameless, encompassing all social levels and ranging from seventeenth century Puritanism to a contemporary film script. Some episodes have a strong narrative line; others are practically plotless; and some require the reader, like an archaeologist, to piece together an...
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