Rupert Thomson: Dartmouth Park
Dartmouth Park is a suburb of London where our narrator lives but spends very little time in this book. The house was bought thanks to a generous legacy from an uncle of our narrator’s wife. Our narrator is called Philip Notman (the surname is not accidental) and he is, he tells us, a fifty-something white man. He is married to Anya and they have a son, Seth. Seth had suffered from depression but is now at university and seems to be coping.
By profession Philip is a historian. He had studied engineering at university but switched to history, which he teaches. He also writes books. He is currently on a sabbatical, writing a book about Priscus of Panion, about whom not much is known and about whom few people have heard.
At the beginning of the book, he is at a conference in Bergen. It is there that he meets a fellow but younger academic. She is from Spain and is called Inés. Clearly they get on well but, though he thinks about it, nothing sexual happens between them.
However, on the way home he gets a couple of nausea attacks, triggered by seemingly simple things. But we also get his first (of many) comments on modern society: Choice was one of the hallmarks of modern society. Choice was a kind of hell and, soon after, Even if you weren’t feeling particularly uncertain yourself, uncertainty crept into your psyche, your interactions with strangers and even with good friends, your entire life. That was 2019 for you. Interestingly, the two key events in the UK in 2019 – Boris Johnson as PM and Brexit – are not mentioned.
Back home his wife asks him if he had an affair which, he rightly denies. Things do not seem too happy between the couple.
He discusses his nausea with a (female) friend who suggests a panic attack or even a psychotic episode. He tries to analyse himself but without much success, except for the general idea that he is disconnected from the modern world.
While all this is going in, we are gradually learning more about his life, particularly his relationship with Anya and problems with Seth as well as more details about what happened in Bergen. He remembers more of the bad things such as problems with Seth and a childhood friend who died. You seem different since you came back Anya says.
He is struggling while we are thinking midlife crisis – relationship with his wife deteriorating, attracted to younger, good-looking, foreign woman. This is further confirmed when he jets off to Cadiz, where Inés lives. Not surprisingly, his wife is not amused. He still loved her, but the emotion was distant, almost poignant, like arriving at a bus stop to see the bus pulling away without you.
On a wall not far from your hotel, the driver told him, there’s a graffiti that says To build another society, you have to destroy this one. Philip agrees.
Inés welcomes him and takes him to a flamenco evening, as both are interested. Her ex turns up and is critical of her choice of an old man. It looks as though he is going to have an affair with her but then he meets Vernon and Allegra. They are an elderly couple who happen to be staying at the same hotel. He is English, she is Cretan. He encounters them in the street. Vernon has fainted and Philip helps them, getting a taxi to take them back to the hotel. In return they offer him the use of their remote Cretan cottage which, because of their age, they barely use. He accepts and Inés is abandoned like Anya and off he goes to Crete. It is remote and there is, of course, a dark side, concerning the previous owner who now lives nearby. He tries to spend some time at a monastery but they do not want him. He tries to make friends with the locals but is not too successful there and not just because of language problems.
Should he go back? Not for the first time, the idea of returning worried him
He could hardly go back to his old life
Once you know something, you can’t unknow it and e appeared to have turned away from everything about his life that he considered beautiful
His wife, his son, His home
So he is off again.
So what is his problem? Is it bunmeibyō, a Japanese term aka civilisation sickness. He elaborates: For him, as for many others, ordinary everyday reality had become unreliable, enervating, even toxic. However remote Crete does not really help, though he tries to make a difference. He later says He didn’t feel “left behind” by technology, and he wasn’t longing to return to a childhood that might or might not have been idyllic (we know that his childhood was not idyllic.) He denies that he is having a midlife crisis. He wants to make a difference but what and how? He writes a manifesto. Most of it, frankly, is very obvious: The runaway consumerism of the recent years has been achieved not just by destigmatising debt, but also by promoting it. We’ve ended up with things we haven’t earned, and can’t really afford. Things that make us feel up-to-date. Business is out to get us and using devious ways to profit from us. We’re not just being monetised. We’re suffering as a result . Anyone who has looked at Twitter/X or, indeed, poked around on the Internet, will have seen this sort of analysis of the ills of modern civilisation. His solutions – clean air, no-one left behind, less income, more freedom, more birds. Many of us would more or less agree but how do we achieve them?
He himself says Was he being impossibly naïve? Was his thinking in any way original, or was he simply dredging up old arguments? To which the answer is simply yes.
Apart from the terrible ending, this was quite an interesting novel, dealing with a man suffering, like many of us, from the ills of modern civilisation: climate change, the rich getting richer, being tied to technology, poverty, pollution, corrupt and inept politicians. He struggles to find a way out and only causes more hurt – to his wife, to Inés, even to his son and perhaps to himself. Perhaps I could add that if you want to change the world you probably will be much better doing it with others than on your own.
First published in 2023 by Other Press