The Standing Pool, By Adam Thorpe

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The Independent Culture

When Adam Thorpe declares on the opening page of his new novel that the provincial French farmhouse at its heart has had its name changed from Mas des Fosses to Mas du Paradis, we can be sure that the information is not incidental. Sure enough, when the Mallinson family move there for a six-month sabbatical, they discover a very dark and earthy underside to their Eden.

Nick and Sarah Mallinson are professional historians. Nick is a reader at a fictitious Cambridge college; Sarah, his former student, has been distracted from completing her thesis by their three young daughters, Tammy, Alicia and Beans. Although theirs is a good marriage, they both suffer from a vague discontent, and Nick's stress-induced attack of pseudopolyps gives them the perfect opportunity to escape. Both the meat and the distinction of the novel lie in Thorpe's intimate depiction of family life: the precocity of eight-year-old Tammy, her casual cruelty to her sisters and wicked mimicry of her mother; the constant negotiations to obtain domestic harmony; and, in particular, the hostages-to-fortune side of parenthood and the heartrending moment when the children appear to have vanished.

Thus far it is the Edenic side of the house that has dominated, but the shadows rapidly gather, be they from Nature, in the shape of the wild boars that rampage through the garden, or from the house's past in the myths and rumours about both a young Resistance fighter shot there during the war and a builder fallen from the roof more recently. Jamie, the resentful and odoriferous son of Nick's first marriage, arrives on an extended visit; and, more sinisterly, there is Jean-Luc, the increasingly psychotic gardener.

Jean-Luc's narrative runs parallel to the Mallinsons'. He lives in squalid circumstances with his largely bed-ridden mother who taunts him with the spectre of his dead father's disapproval while he routinely threatens to murder her. He nurses a bitter hatred for Michel Legrange, the local hard man, and an intense veneration for his uncle Fernand, the murdered Resistance fighter, for whom he is making a monument, bizarrely entitled "The resurrection of the mutant hen".

Jean-Luc is as much an amateur historian trying to understand his family's and his village's past as Nick is a professional one, specialising in the African oil industry. Thorpe has explored historical themes before, notably in his debut, Ulverton. Here, he overplays the Mallinsons' profession. It is as though he feels the need to add a layer of significance to what is already a substantial portrait of family life. Thorpe fails fully to integrate the two parallel narratives, requiring the Mallinsons to be shunted aside while the house's owners, whom they have ironically but aptly nicknamed "the gods", descend to provide the novel's climax.

Asked to define history, Nick suggests: "A series of vague and soiled snapshots you try to form a narrative from." To some degree this holds true also for fiction. Here, Thorpe offers some delightful snapshots, not vague and sullied but vivid and luminous. It is the overarching narrative that is weak.