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Lawrence Norfolk: Lemprière’s Dictionary

This, Norfolk’s first novel, received considerable acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, when first published, and it is not difficult to see why. It uses the post-modern technique of taking a historical event and changing it somewhat for fictional purposes. It is based on the story of John Lemprière, a man now largely forgotten but whose Classical Dictionary was influential on many writers, particularly the Romantic poets.

Lemprière lives with his parents on the island of Jersey. He is obsessed with classical mythology and always has his head stuck in a book on the subject. However, he is in love – with Juliette, daughter of the Viscount Casterleigh. When he is asked by the Viscount to help select classical books for the Viscount’s library, he naturally agrees, for which he receives a fine edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Then tragedy occurs. John and his father both go out for a walk, separately, to avoid one of the mother’s cleaning sessions. John heads to his favourite pool, where, to his surprise, he finds Juliette bathing naked. At the same time, Casterleigh’s hounds are on the hunt – apparently for John. But it is his father that they find and tear to pieces. The scene reminds John of the legend of Diana and Actaeon, which he had just read about in Ovid.

John goes to London to settle his father’s will but also to see two doctors of the mind. They recommend that he write about the ancients to settle his overactive imagination. He starts work on his dictionary. However, before long, with reference to various myths found in Ovid, he finds himself embroiled in a monstrous conspiracy which looks like something straight out of Pynchon and, if we are not sure about that, Norfolk slips in a character called Mister O’Tristero. There is a murder mystery, involving a prostitute and a detective who happens to be the brother of Henry Fielding and also happens to be blind. He is, of course, in the Sherlock Holmes mould but he does suspect Lemprière. More murders take place, all seemingly reminiscent of classical myth. But this is only the beginning. Norfolk takes us into the East India Company, the French Revolution, a mysterious ship and the Huguenots. If you like a gigantic, Pynchon-style conspiracy, you will love this book. It is witty, convoluted, wildly imaginative, inventive and a joy to read.

Publishing history

First published 1991 by Sinclair-Stevenson