Looking away

Michael Wood

  • First Light by Peter Ackroyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 328 pp, £12.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 241 12498 0
  • The Chymical Wedding by Lindsay Clarke
    Cape, 542 pp, £12.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 224 02537 6
  • The Northern Lights by Howard Norman
    Faber, 236 pp, £4.99, April 1989, ISBN 0 571 15474 3

‘The dead writers,’ Eliot said, ‘are that which we know.’ They are also, Peter Ackroyd might want to add, that which we don’t know we know or wish we knew better, agents of prodigious but incomplete hauntings. From The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde to Chatterton, Ackroyd has shown himself an adept in the speech of such ghosts. Indeed his gift for their speech is so great that it can be distracting: we forget to wonder if the ghosts have anything to say.

They do have things to say, though; the distraction is ours, not Ackroyd’s. The ghost of Oscar Wilde, for example, suggests that frivolity and suffering are far from incompatible, and that recognising our faults and regretting them are two quite different activities. The ghost of Chatterton hints that no fake is entirely false and that ‘time is nothing other than the pattern of deaths which succeed one another.’ Ackroyd’s new novel picks up and expands precisely this last notion. It doesn’t seek to revive or imitate the literary dead – it nods towards Hardy and Powys, borrows a few tics from Dickens, strays at times (unintentionally, I think) into the territory of William Golding and Iris Murdoch – but it does go in for resurrection in a big way. It digs up the past in all directions.

The major strand of the plot concerns an archaeological site in Dorset, the excavation of a tumulus thought to be about 4500 years old, or perhaps older. There are strange inscriptions on the uncovered stones, the skeleton of a hanged man in the entry to the tomb, further mysteries deeper under the ground. Another plot strand has a retired music hall and television star searching for his origins – the cottages where he lived as a child, before his parents died and he was adopted. Yet another strand involves an astronomer who works at a nearby observatory, and whose job is to watch the giant star Aldebaran. The strands are carefully interwoven, both thematically and in the criss-crossing story line. There is plenty of complication and suspense, and a fine climax. The buried dead are the past but so are the stars, since years go by before their light reaches us. An ammonite reminds a character of the ‘image of a star’. A widower begins to be consoled for the suicide of his wife by learning that ‘even our bodies are built with the fossilised debris of dead stars,’ which to him means that ‘nothing really dies.’ The ancient inscriptions turn out to be star maps, the work of prehistoric astronomers.

This is a novel about continuities, about what is rather too significantly described as ‘some unspoken and unanalysable communion between the living and the dead’, and it is leisurely and conventional in tone and manner – for Ackroyd, therefore, an unconventional move. Here we have a narrator who reads his characters’ faces and gestures (‘there was a wariness about his eyes which suggested a man who was compelled to make an effort to conquer self-doubt’), and knows what they think and do not think. He is an expert in pain and silence (‘The wave of her misery hit him now, knocking the breath out of him’); but also, rather oddly, a collector of grotesques (the lesbian lady who insists on treating her mannish companion as a piece of fluff, the comedian’s wife who commits a malapropism in every speech).

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