Books: The juju beneath Ulverton

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The Independent Culture
Pieces of Light

by Adam Thorpe, Doubleday pounds 16.99

The close-up of a leopard skin makes a strong motif on the dust jacket of Adam Thorpe's new novel. Its deep cream and black dapple of hair, slightly ragged like your grandmother's heirloom antimacassar, subtly complements the metaphor of Thorpe's title. His novel is spangled with partial truths and dusty revelations which cast a shadow pattern of comprehension across the text.

Like the shards of pottery reverently brushed from the Neolithic tumuli of Ulverton in Thorpe's first novel, "truth" is only so much meticulous excavation and the surmise of expert amateurs. Thorpe has returned to Ulverton with his third, but his grand theme remains: history's purchase upon the present, and the mythic possibilities of the past.

Hugh Arkwright spent his first seven years in Bamakum, a remote outpost in tropical West Africa where his father James, a shiny cog in the rusting gears of Empire, was sent to replace the District's two previous bachelor officers who went mad. His wife Charlotte will safeguard his own sanity, and administer serum and medical advice to the villagers. Hugh scampers amongst these Africans; his best friend, Quid, teaches the youngster about juju, inculcating into him the encompassing power of the spirit world.

Hugh carries this vivid spiritual grounding with him when he is sent away from his Edenic childhood ("my golden age," he will later reflect, "before the Fall") to be schooled in England. He lodges in Ulverton at Ilythia, the house of Charlotte's brother Edward, a man partially unhinged by the the Great War. Hugh endures private schools, a lonely puberty, and homesickness. Increasingly scarce letters from Mother stop with the sudden news from Bamakum that she has disappeared. Not died; but vanished, inexplicably.

Returning to Ulverton as an elderly, successful theatre director (famous for his "fetishistic superstition for the past"), Hugh unearths the old family leopard skin, shipped back from Bamakum, whilst clearing out Ilythia's attic. Thorpe cleverly allows this heirloom to become a powerful fetish within the novel itself, binding it into an improbable and unclear sequence of events that embroil Hugh in village myth and a savage murder. Thorpe successfully transposes the vibrant animist beliefs of Bamakum onto the parochial gossip of Ulverton, allowing the uncomprehended past to usurp the dynamic present.

"Fascinating. Love it," muttered village yokel Adam Thorpe in Ulverton, when bones were discovered whose archaeological significance stopped the progress of a property developer. Thorpe is fascinated by the ineluctable gravity of the past, and his delicate writing around the powers possibly guiding Hugh's life is a sophisticated piece of prose, a souffle of ideas and suggestions unencumbered by the flat obduracies of fact.

is a substantial achievement, and testimony to Thorpe's consummate skill at imagining and sustaining diverse, discrete voices. Hugh at seven never thinks beyond his own empirical universe, whilst the schoolboy pedantry of a lonely 10-year-old, sullenly referring to farts as "letting off" and petulantly refusing to understand the euphemisms of adulthood, is poignantly written.

Only the voice of Hugh writing "letters" to his absent mother becomes somewhat indulgent. These letters, detailing his own progress through adulthood, are Hugh's therapy after the double-shock of the Ulverton murder inquiry and his own investigations into his mother's fate. Charlotte's disappearance never offered a grave that could serve as a locus for Hugh's spiralling psychologies of loss; and Thorpe makes these written confessions serve as a narrative vehicle to deliver the substance of the novel's plot. Again in evidence is Thorpe fondness for the elliptical, occluded interior monologue that dominated Still, his courageously obsessive but macroscopically tedious second novel. Now Hugh roams over decades - his first love, Uncle Edward's Nazi-linked, druidic Thule Society, war years, the arcane "vital force" that brought theatrical fame - glimpsing all through his own elusive memories.

The result is a narrative as sumptuous and engaging as William Boyd's The New Confessions, weighed down with slabs of lunatic intensity. The intrigue of Hugh's life and discoveries, wrapped as they are in the fumbling logic of his fond letters, is never quite so fascinating as these glimpsed histories. I remain tantalised, and curiously unsatisfied.

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