Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Adam Thorpe's "Ulverton": Book Review

Readers of "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell (2004) or even the far less known debut novel by the well-known Alan Moore "Voice of the Fire" (1995) may admire this 1993 predecessor in the same mode of storytelling (I reviewed both). Over time, voices and registers shift as a locale takes in generations who convey overlapping themes, concerns, mysteries, items, and predecessors. Thorpe even fits himself into the final chapter from 1988. This circles back neatly to the start, where in 1650 a soldier from Cromwell's depredations in Ireland returns to Ulverton, a vaguely placed hamlet in the southwest of England (think of Hardy's Wessex).

That takes place in an efficient style nearly our own, but most chapters after will hearken to the tone and vocabulary of the period. Similar to Moore, this will challenge the reader, as it forces you into dialect and regionalisms. Facts tying each section to others flit across the page, but rarely and briefly. Considerable concentration is needed, perhaps too much in one part which as with other chapters seems to go on too long for the detail and the mood necessary to place the reader within the situation, and some of this moves slowly--if fittingly so for a rural account, after all.

1689 comes with a more Bunyanesque feel, set on the barren places in a terrible winter. A religious revelation bursts in, as an Anglican clergyman must tell of a Quaker's conversion in grotesquely twisted circumstances. 1712 brings in a fussy tone about a diligent landowner's earnest attempts to modernize as the land's enclosed and its farmers set later to toil for the gentry and the wealthier class who have taken over the commons. Thorpe introduces here an effect I like and which he uses later, hesitation by a narrator: brackets here fill in what the writer loses control over or leaves illegible.

In epistolary style, one side of an exchange between a lady of the estate and her departed lover happens in 1743. Pay attention already to items that are repeating in later chapters. 1775 I had to read to myself aloud in parts. It's a barely literate tailor's transcription of a phonetic rendering of dialect and while compelling--a mother's plea for her son sentenced for stealing a hat to Newgate prison in London--it demands very close attention, but it rewards the same. This can be said of the entire novel. Few passages leap out, but the accumulative effect pleases in incremental, subtle, and embedded fashion.

I felt the 1803 part an amusing if moral shaggy-dog story--and a long one set in a tavern suitably over a long if one-sided conversation-- but it does in retrospect show how the cutting down of so much of England's woodlands altered the landscape and furnished its houses in a time of fuel and expansion. In 1830 a backlash against mechanization by farmers sets laborers to revolt, as taken down by a legal functionary, as he intersperses the testimony of those arrested and facing execution or transportation to Van Diemen's Land with his appeals to his beloved. Thorpe plays off the concerns of the law and gentry skillfully, as they attend to agrarian matters as they must, but often in offhand fashion compared to their domestic concerns, as their own jobs interfere with their own pleasures, as with us all.

A female photographer's 1859 commentary on the plates she takes around Ulverton as well as in Egypt captures Thorpe's ability to channel his chosen styles well--here a George Eliot phrasing comes across very smoothly. Light in the Middle East hits her differently: glare makes a scene "as unintelligible as newsprint in a foreign country." (188) A stream-of-consciousness 1887 poacher's ruminations take the most effort, even more than that of the prisoner's mother, to decipher. A short part, it felt much longer.

Still, these set up if laboriously the impacts of the last century. Here, the sections start to coalesce, as surnames you've seen from centuries before repeat and as places sound more familiar. 1914 juxtaposes an amateur archeology dig at the barrow through an official retired from India with the recruitment by the squire of the local lads to enlist and fight. As if a parlor opened once a year for visitors, so, the narrator reflects, are the mentalities of the villagers, exposed to an idea beyond their workaday and parochial concerns. "To reveal the dead is not to release them." (245) A standalone chapter, it successfully dissects imperial imperatives and ironies.

Following is another intriguing perspective: a 42-year-old woman transcribes the fulsome and tiresome obsession of a cartoonist to record his life and times before it all blows up in 1953. A bonfire of old carts and farming tools commemorates the Coronation and the passing of agrarian ways as the motor car and the plastic wonders of the modern age enter the markets and the streets. She demurs: "Why can't folk leave the past alone?" (289)The ellipses and hesitations of the narrator assume a poignant role and the starts and stops in her own asides challenging or easing her honesty grow as this section unfolds. This modulation memorably displays Thorpe's control of character.

Finally, Thorpe makes a cameo as in 1988 a native son turns developer. It's a post-production script for a documentary as a housing estate is built and the barrow makes another appearance, so to speak. Thorpe tells the two sides fairly, the need for saving a village's economy by ensuring jobs to build houses aimed at young families able to keep a few businesses there going, and the need for preservation and respect for fading folkways in a place where every field stands for so much more and where every field bears a telling name.

It's a challenging novel. While parts slow you down, and some of this proves too prolix, the experience of immersion in a dialect and a thought pattern foreign to us makes the lessons Thorpe labors long to inculcate convincing. For its prose experiments and as a novel of ideas, this will appeal. (8-13-13 Amazon US ... or here )

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