Rupert Thomson: Countries of the mind

Rupert Thomson, spellbinding creator of mysterious landscapes, has imagined Britain in the grip of a psychological apartheid. Boyd Tonkin meets a fictional enchanter
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The moment you open the door into any of Rupert Thomson's eerie and hypnotic fictions, the everyday world slides into an uncanny new dimension. Behind this door, ordinary-seeming people may pursue ordinary-seeming lives, but in an unsettling climate of mystery, peril and enchantment that leaves the reader bewitched and adrift. Which is pretty much how I feel here in the Earls Court flat that, for many years, he has borrowed from an artist friend for visits to London.

The moment you open the door into any of Rupert Thomson's eerie and hypnotic fictions, the everyday world slides into an uncanny new dimension. Behind this door, ordinary-seeming people may pursue ordinary-seeming lives, but in an unsettling climate of mystery, peril and enchantment that leaves the reader bewitched and adrift. Which is pretty much how I feel here in the Earls Court flat that, for many years, he has borrowed from an artist friend for visits to London.

This place seems to belong in a sensual and sinister fairy-tale. (A couple of Thomson's novels would neatly fit that billing.) Sunlight from the first warm day of spring fills the ballroom-sized expanse, its ceiling a riot of fancy but peeling stucco. Matching Warhol-esque erotic prints in acid-trip colours hang in each corner. In the centre, stuffed tropical birds sit songless in their glass cage, as if frozen by some witch's spell. The bustling reality of SW5 has ceded to a waking dream.

That, more or less, is how Thomson's novels work. Since his debut in 1987, this elegant, silver-cropped former advertising copywriter has crafted a body of work so singular, flavoursome and captivating that you wonder why his fame has not yet matched his talent. His books remain a kind of open secret, an unlocked garden. Each is a hyper-real hallucination lit by sumptuous prose and fuelled by a prodigal gift for atmosphere and suspense.

When Thomson sits down to work (as he does with diligence, in five-month stints of seven-day weeks), does this rotation of reality into another dimension just happen when he writes? "It is what happens," he answers, a friendly sort of magus in this baroque sorceror's den. He adds that "the books that mean the most to me are ones that make me feel that I'm seeing the world for the first time, almost. But there's a paradox here, because at the same time they're showing me something I recognise; something familiar." That description matches his own works.

The louche Earls Court decor prompts a scene in Thomson's new novel, Divided Kingdom (Bloomsbury, £17.99). Both a political parable and a personal quest, the book mind-bendingly joins the mood of Little Britain to Nineteen Eighty-Four. This space becomes a discreet restaurant that may or may not double as a brothel. "They make an exceptional crême brûlée," purrs a civil servant to his protegé. "It's a weakness of mine."

Thomson has been a wanderer for the two decades since he quit advertising for honest fiction. Slim and suave, a youthful 49, he keeps an almost supernatural lightness about him, as if (like one of his characters) he might slip across borders without anyone noticing. He now lives in the Sarria district of Barcelona, with his wife and their five-year-old daughter.

How stereotypically novelist-hip, you imagine. In fact, the location owes more to paternal anxiety than trendiness. Little Eva suffers from asthma, and since last autumn has thrived in the drier air of the slopes behind the Catalan capital. Anyway, most of Divided Kingdom took shape near the Mersey, not the Med: on the Cheshire plain, where the family lived while Thomson's father-in-law was dying from cancer. There, noxious fumes from chemical plants menaced Eva's health.

"The health visitor would say, you should keep the windows closed at night because that's when they pump out the gases," her father recalls. "And then you go on the internet and find out that it's one of the most polluted areas in Europe." Now they can enjoy a smog-free neighbourhood of "narrow streets and old buildings", with "a vivid sense of itself. Within a few weeks of our moving there last September there were dragons coming down the streets with fireworks attached to their heads, and men with sheep's bottoms on painted hats. There seem to be constant festivals."

With Divided Kingdom, his seventh novel, Thomson extends the reach of his matchlessly strange imagination to create a tightly-knit, deftly-designed political fable. Aspects of its Deep English pastoral also hark back to the style of Dreams of Leaving: the debut novel he wrote, partly while a sort of caretaker at the actress Miriam Margolyes' house in Tuscany, after he had left his ad agency.

In the new novel's parallel world, the UK authorities have reacted to an epidemic of crime and mayhem with the imposition not of ethnic but psychological cleansing. The new regime is rooted in the antique medical theory of "Humours". Re-drawn and quartered, Britain - now 25 years on from the trauma of this "Rearrangement" - consists of four strictly separated nations, a different character-type herded into each. Thomson stresses that "You're supposed to be able to look out of the window and imagine these things taking place now. It's an alternative present; it's not a futuristic book."

Benign, spiritual but wishy-washy, the Phlegmatics occupy Wales and the West. Cholerics, driven by money, sex and rage, build their hi-tech, neon-lit enclave in the Midlands and North. Melancholics, their lives stalled, glum but as ruefully funny as a Mike Leigh film, fill the foggy East and Scotland. And the Sanguine minority, among whom our hero grows up as a privileged young pioneer and works as a high-flying bureaucrat, forge a stiff-upper-lip, Attlee-era paradise - lots of railways and bicycles, but no motorways - in the bland and cheerful South-east.

This emotional carve-up sounds, and proves, absurd. Yet the four personality-based statelets inspire a richly ingenious satire on the arbitrary classifications that often fix our identity. Thomson found that Humour-theory politics was perfect for his purposes, "because it was so imprecise; it was so crude. Within that system, there was room for all kinds of mistakes."

Aged eight, Thomas is ripped from his "Melancholic" parents. Schooled for the Sanguine elite, he enforces the system of psychological apartheid as a trusty insider. Then he enters the Phlegmatic quarter for an inter-zone congress. Once he begins to recover memories from his broken boyhood in a mysterious club there, Thomas drifts into dissent. An inkling that "our famous differences were no more than convenient fictions" sends him on a hunted, haunted quest.

Also at the age of eight, Thomson lost his mother when she suddenly died (at 33) while playing tennis. With a sick father, young Rupert had to take responsibility for his two younger brothers. "That's almost the trigger for everything," he says. "It's as if a sort of starting-pistol was fired, and I had to embark on a race. But I've sort of forgotten about why I'm running it. I'm just engaged, completely involved, in the physical and mental experience of the race. I don't tend to think about that death very much."

Thomson can often seem the least autobiographical of novelists. Yet a frantic race to recover lost time seems to shape many of his scenarios. Divided Kingdom says so much, so cleverly, about our collective illusions of identity and community that critics may downplay its search for reparation to focus on the political dystopia. "I suppose a lot of the imagery, and the way that it's been marketed, gives you that aspect of the book first," he says. "I'm just as interested in the emotional journey, because it's as much a book about loss and memory as it is a satire."

Even the satire has real-world foundations. The idea of frontiers erected and populations swapped on the basis of an ideological nonsense "sounds unlikely and surreal when you apply it to this country," Thomson admits. Look at recent history, though, and you find equally irrational upheavals and partitions. Above all, the bisected Germany that survived until 1991 broods over the book. "I've long realised the year or two I spent in Berlin in the early 1980s informs a lot of what I do," he says. "The experience of living in that city really lodged itself - lodged itself deep."

By crossing a forbidden border, or walking through a door, Thomson's characters hope to heal their wounds. On the other side may lie a future than makes good a ruined past. In Divided Kingdom (in the Melancholic quarter, naturally), Thomas rings a bell to enter the "Museum of Tears". Here, his vanished parents have deposited a liquid token of their grief.

"I had to push and push at the material until I could make him realise that he might have been loved; that he was missed, and he was loved," says Thomas's creator. "I suppose I know that to be true in my case as well. And I suppose I wonder what more I need to know." If this room belonged solely in a Rupert Thomson novel, and not in everyday Earls Court as well, those small stuffed birds might now begin to sing.

Biography: Rupert Thomson

Rupert Thomson, 49, was brought up in Eastbourne. He went to boarding school at Christ's Hospital in Sussex, then studied medieval history at Cambridge. After a successful career in advertising, he began to write fiction full-time in the early 1980s; his first novel, Dreams of Leaving, appeared in 1987. It was followed by The Five Gates of Hell (1991), Air and Fire (1993), The Insult (1996), Soft (1998) and The Book of Revelation (1999). Divided Kingdom, his new novel, is published by Bloomsbury. Rupert Thomson has often lived and worked abroad: in Tuscany, Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam and elsewhere. He now lives in Barcelona with his wife and five-year-old daughter.