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Adam Thorpe: Pieces of Light

Adam Thorpe is one of those writers who produces an interesting first work (in his case Ulverton) and then tries perhaps a bit too hard afterwards. Still was an interesting premise but really did not work and became tiresome. This one looked even more interesting but, again, didn’t really work for me. It should have done. It has a lot of my favourite themes – comparing England with other countries (in this case, Africa), the search for Englishness, the mysterious uncle with secrets in his attic, an unexplained disappearance and discussions of art, in this case how to perform Shakespearean plays. Yet none of it really holds together.

What is the problem? The initial problem is the hero/narrator, Hugh Arkwright. We first meet him at around age seven, when he is with his parents in Cameroon. We do move somewhat forward from there and get glimpses of his teen years. A hero/narrator has certain responsibilities. He must be someone that we can identify with or, if not, he must be interesting enough to want to follow what happens to him. Hugh Arkwright, unfortunately, is nothing more than a boring little prig. Frankly, if he had been eaten by a crocodile early on, it would have been a blessing. He prattles on, is patronising and shows a remarkable ignorance of the adult world (most children know more than adults think). A case in point is his continual confusion about the use of words used in different contexts. At first, this might be mildly amusing but, after about the tenth time, it becomes rather annoying. If he doesn’t know the difference between circus and circumcision at age ten, then he has severe mental problems. Of course, he does have mental problems. Thorpe makes a daring leap, jumping from the first person narration of age seven to the diary of age seventy. Sadly, he misses his leap. Arkwright is still a pompous, self-satisfied, boring prig and the telegraph diary style is even more annoying. His mental breakdown elicits no sympathy, at least from me. Of course, a pompous, self-satisfied, boring prig can be the hero of a novel (see Evelyn Waugh, for example) but then he has to be interesting or, at least, what happens around him has to be interesting and it is the author’s job to make sure that it is interesting. Thorpe fails on both counts.

Let’s return to the early part, where the seven year old Arkwright is the narrator. One of the responsibilities of a child narrator is often to give us a glimpse of the adult world. Yes, he most certainly can fail to understand the adult world (see, for example, Leo in The Go-Between) but then it is up to the author to give us an idea of what is going on, even if the child narrator does not have a clue. Hartley does this superbly. Thorpe does not. There seems to be some mystery but we get so little information about it that we are not even sure if there is, indeed, a mystery and, if there is, we don’t care. His parents don’t want him around. Oh dear. So what? His uncle may be up to some odd deeds but they are kept well hidden not only from Arkwright but also from us so that we do not know if there really is a mystery going on. In short, we are bored.

Let’s look at the Africa-is-different-from-England theme. In Africa, Thorpe tells us, they believe in fetishes and the power of animals while the English sort of go to church but do not take religion seriously. No shit, Sherlock. Sacrifices and leopard societies and voodoo-like magic and strange ceremonies are all part of Africa. Well, if I wanted to know that, I would have read a book on Africa, not an English novel. Indeed, the comparison is so facile and obvious that, once again, you just don’t care. A better novelist would have made much more of the Uncle Edward-Africa link, beyond Uncle Edward’s rejection of conventional English Christianity which, after all, is hardly unique. (England – or, specifically, non-Muslim England – has one of the lowest religious turnouts on the world.) But Thorpe seems more interested in his form (first-person narration>telegraph-style diary>letters) and his somewhat clever bits on what is (and, of course, what isn’t) real Englishness.

No, it really doesn’t hold together. Other reviewers, who have generally praised the work, because that is what reviewers are meant to do, have clearly been somewhat uncomfortable as well. Fine but flawed, is what some of them have said and given that most reviewers nowadays rarely condemn a work (not least because they are afraid that someone will damn theirs), this is really damning with faint praise. But really, truth be told, it is flawed, not fine, and seriously flawed.

Publishing history

First published 1998 by Jonathan Cape