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Rupert Thomson: Dreams of Leaving

The novel is set in New Egypt, a small village in the South of England. New Egypt is like many other small English villages with one significant exception – you cannot leave it, ever. The village is ruled by the cruel chief of police, Peach, and he is going to make sure no-one ever leaves. However, a young father, George Highness, with a baby son, appropriately named Moses, puts his child in a basket and floats him downstream. Moses escapes, though the people of the village think he has drowned. Of course, others had tried to escape before. Tommy Dane, for one, tried. They caught him and brought him back. He was not a pretty sight. Altogether, there had been some half-dozen attempts. None succeeded. Except for Moses.

Move forward a bit. Moses is now in the city but unsure of where he came from. He associates with shady characters – drug dealers, pimps, thieves and the like – and shares a flat with the impossibly good-looking Eddie. But Peach finds out that Moses has escaped and he is not amused. Indeed, he is so unamused that he is determined to go and find the escapee. But London is not New Egypt and Peach finds himself at a distinct disadvantage in London. It is, of course, inevitable that Moses, purely by chance, arrives in New Egypt but, for him, it is just another village and does not cause him any concern but it does have an effect on him, as if he knows that he has some connection with the place.

What this brief summary does not show is the story of Moses in London – his association with the seedy underworld – and the story of New Egypt and Peach’s role in it. Thomson does not juxtaposes them, as he could have done, to show that one is bad and one good. His purpose is to show the differences between two systems – the oppressive, restrictive, uniform country, which people dream of leaving but often cannot, not because of some burly policeman but for a variety of complex reasons and the city life, with its widely varied culture, which may be too difficult for many of us to comprehend. Moses acts as the link between the two. The past, as Thomson clearly shows in this and his subsequent novels, is not something we can shrug off, even if we are unaware of it. It will come back in strange ways to haunt us.

This is a totally original novel. It made a deep impression on me when I first read it and I unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone interested in where English literature is going.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by Bloomsbury