On Adam Thorpe's Pieces of Light

Pieces of Light

by Adam Thorpe

Jonathan Cape, 16.99, 479pp

Despite beginning in West Africa, Adam Thorpe's massive novel is largely concerned with claims to Englishness. The work establishes links between the "Edenic" jungles of West Africa - "How the Garden of Eden can turn to a dark hell" - and the old wood paganism of rural England, masked by McDonalds but nevertheless there, in a manner both soul searching and tainted with scepticism. When "pieces of Africa" collide with the superstitions and chthonic forces of primeval England we are led to ask, along with our chief narrator, Hugh Arkwright, exactly "what is England".

This is primarily a novel about place, about how we feed or don't feed on "the sap" of our genealogies. The links to place are complex - physical or imagined, easily corrupted. The druidic sacrifices of virgins' blood to the English forests, the Leopard Societies with their fetishes of human body parts in West Africa, and Africa itself, are merged in a plot that sends Englishness into the "primal" and brings it back. The colonisers change Africa - a goat might now be sacrificed instead of a human - but Africa doesn't let go easily. And it is appropriately through the leopard, potential man-eater - or a leopard skin as the case may be - that the two worlds collide most spectacularly. In Pieces of Light symbols work as plot devices, and this is one of the work's most appealing characteristics.

Underlying all of this is a confrontation with the primal self - conveniently imposed on colonised Africa but also strongly present in the place the coloniser comes from. We see the England of stones and mistletoe behind the modern. Thorpe skilfully examines the pagan in-all-of-us, with Christianity and consumer cults as stage props to a greater truth - using healthy doses of irony to keep us comfortable.

We begin the story from the child Hugh's perspective in an outpost in West Africa in the 1920s. This is where Thorpe's most skilled writing is found. It has a Proustian air about it, a debt acknowledged through references later in the book. Debts to many authors are alluded to, and the voice moves from the Proustian richness of childhood evocation through to a supernatural thriller ˆ la Wilkie Collins, and even an investigation of memory and age that has small touches of Beckett about it. But this is the novel's primary fault. For a book that is in many ways a ghost story, clarity of line leading to ambivalence - what makes Henry James a master in Turn of The Screw - isn't entirely here. Ambivalence becomes lack of clarity. The plot wavers with evasions and quick fixes. In many ways the parodic element of the work is unsatisfying, if fascinating. There are elements of that greatest of ghost story writers, M.R. James, but not his crisp style. The book is too long by a hundred pages.

We move with the child from West Africa - the only world he has known - to England, and his Uncle Edward and Aunt Joy in their bizarre house - Ilythia - in Ulverton, replete with old growth wood which Edward believes to be a remnant of the original forest that once covered all England. He hopes it will reclaim the place as soon as possible. He sees people as damaging excrescences, and we learn as the plot unfolds that he may well have been storing poisonous gas to wipe out all human inhabitants, in an effort to restore the State of Nature. There's more than a dose of apocalyptic millennial fever about this! The house in Ulverton in which Hugh is brought up in England becomes a character in its own right. It is the archetypal English ghost house, the place in which Hugh transforms one form of "paganism" into another, a hothouse for the breeding and rejection of Englishness. Nothing sits comfortably there, and identity is a composite that one can never really locate. Read through Hugh, it becomes a pattern of conflicts and resolutions. Hugh clings to his fetish pack from Africa which protects and gives strength both physically and symbolically.

When we return with Hugh as an old man, we become aware of just how obsessed his uncle - author of such texts as I, Nubat, of the Forest People - really is. We do this by way of Hugh's diary which ends abruptly for the narrative to be picked up in "letters" addressed to his Mother who disappeared in Africa when Hugh was a child. His longing for her and his failure to accept her disappearance drive the therapy Hugh is apparently receiving. He has been advised that the process of writing to her will help him. We see the letters he has been asked to write to rebuild his identity, to make connection with an outside world he has cut himself off from. We learn through Hugh that he has been through something similar that happened when he was in his 40s. His doctor then was Dr Wolff, appropriately lycanthropic.

Hugh has dedicated his life to Shakespeare, specifically the presentation of traditional acting methods. He is a famous man who has retired, and returned to see if the family home can be reclaimed for an acting research centre. Being childless, he will make it his gift to the future. The link between ritual and theatre is ever present, most specifically in the "play within the play" of the local Mumming group. Malcolm, their director, is enticed by Uncle Edward's I, Nubat, of the Forest People, and its stage potential - to be performed on-site.

The Second World War becomes part of Hugh's mystical journey. We travel with Hugh as he trains to be an observer, despite only having one eye, and the complexities of his relationship with Rachel - the exotic dark woman with sexual magnetism. But his hold on her is tenuous - she's looking for something that he hasn't recognised in himself. Rachel is attracted to his Uncle, whom Hugh loathes and considers a fraud. Hugh wrestles with his own identity. Sexuality and suggestions of death are interwoven. There are multiple levels of incest suggestion. The subplot of the Red Lady - who Hugh thinks might be the image of his lost Mother - and the portrait of small community malevolences that arise from his sleuthery are grounded in this. But nothing is as it seems. Despite the rustic witchery, everything is grounded in the real world of consumption and profit. The harvest home rustics are like characters in a mumming play but they're also frighteningly real at times.

The discovery of his Mother's letters from the early 1920s in the attic holds the answer to both the questions of plot and Hugh's Oedipal struggle. The last section of the book is made up of these letters written after her arrival in Africa through to Hugh's birth. Once again, nothing is as it seems. The letters give an adult's view of the world to contrast with the child's. The narrative revolves around the character of Hugh but his Mother is a driving force. His father is an impotent appendage. This is a book about potency and fertility. There is a struggle with masculinity which occasionally surfaces as suppressed homophobia.

The strength of Pieces of Light is in its first section, as we see an isolated outpost of the British Colonial Office through the eyes of a child. Superstition and reality - Sir Steggie and the fetish are interwoven, where a cricket bat becomes talisman and myth, where the barriers between cultures is fluid. It will be replaced in the last section of the book, but even there with uncertainty.

Pieces of Light is a large, sometimes intensely focused, other times rambling work. Somewhere in there a masterpiece lurks, but its self-consciousness makes the emergence of that difficult. It's a book trying to be too many things.