The Rules of Perspective by Adam Thorpe

What's more precious to you - life or art?
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The Independent Culture

Unlike many readers, I've never been a particularly big fan of war novels (or films, for that matter). Most of the time the material feels too familiar and, unless the author has had firsthand experience, it often seems as if such books are seeking a significance they do not deserve. But I've always had a soft spot for Adam Thorpe (partly because his novels stand next to mine in the bookshop, but mainly because I read Ulverton at an impressionable age), so I was prepared to put my prejudices aside.

Unlike many readers, I've never been a particularly big fan of war novels (or films, for that matter). Most of the time the material feels too familiar and, unless the author has had firsthand experience, it often seems as if such books are seeking a significance they do not deserve. But I've always had a soft spot for Adam Thorpe (partly because his novels stand next to mine in the bookshop, but mainly because I read Ulverton at an impressionable age), so I was prepared to put my prejudices aside.

Nevertheless, at first I thought The Rules of Perspective was going to be a slog. It is, essentially, a bunker book, with a narrow focus, concentrating mainly on the minimal conversation between the four staff of a small-town museum - the Kaiser Wilhelm - huddled together in the building's vaults. These four main characters, such as Frau Schenkel, who smells of toilets mingling with damp wool and mothballs and whose "chief dread was being raped by a Negro", seemed like unpleasant personages with whom to spend 350 pages.

Thorpe's male protagonists are diminished, sad figures; the women completely undesirable - one is suspected of "letting off" in the confined space of the vaults. His prose contains some strange tics too. Whenever breasts are described, which is more often than you might think, they are usually "surprisingly" something. "Surprisingly clean," on page 102, "surprisingly cool" 19 pages later. I understand that seeing a woman's breasts is a more unusual event for his characters than it is for us today, but this still seems a little silly. He is capable of moments of great beauty, but there is also plenty of bathos.

About halfway through, he started to win me over. While the conversation is fractious and unpleasant, each character has a vivid internal life that Thorpe explores in convincing detail. He avoids cliché and unnecessary heroism, as well as managing to open the narrative far beyond the small confines within which his characters are trapped. This is not a conventional wartime romance and, if senses are heightened by circumstance, this does not provoke passion in his protagonists but instead an existentialist agony that feels utterly convincing. Much of the book seems to be about how to behave with dignity when there are so few options left, and how to cope with your life when the smallness of your ambitions is revealed to you.

In constructing this novel, Thorpe has drawn on the memories of his brother's mother-in-law, as well as personal accounts by GI veterans on infantry division websites. Alongside the stories of the four colleagues, Thorpe also describes the thoughts of an art-loving American soldier, Corporal Neal Parry. Shellshocked, he is sustained by the possibility of preserving a single painting, "Landscape with Ruins", in whatever ripped and blistered state, from the museum.

The Rules of Perspective has a readymade audience. If you're a fan of Atonement or Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, you will undoubtedly enjoy Thorpe's novel but, even if you're allergic to Second World War fiction, the novel should entertain anyone with a serious interest in art. While none of the characters is especially appealing, there is a psychological truth to all of them, and the novel is a genuinely worthy and interesting addition to the genre. It is about the cost of art as much as the cost of war, and the value of human life compared to the value of a painting - a question that lies at the centre of this uncomfortably challenging book.

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