‘You,’ the mother of six-year-old Hugh informs him, ‘are the only white child in the whole of West and Central Africa, that I know of.’ The remote outpost of Empire, made up of a few crumbling concrete bungalows perilously perched between crocodile-infested river and ever-encroaching forest, had looked like Eden to the newly wed Arkwrights, fleeing the killing fields of the Great War with the noble colonial ideal of winning over the natives by example rather than terror. But it is no place to bring up an English child, especially one ‘born bush’ and already finding his metaphors in the pidgin English of the servants and his gods in jungle spirits and African fetishes rather than the cricket bats and Bibles of passing missionaries. So Hugh is exiled from his tropical paradise to the care of his aunt and uncle in ‘the land of letters and telegrams’, with only his homemade fetish packet and a sacred mark burned into his neck by the sympathetic houseboy for protection.
Miserable on the promised soft lawns of rural England, Hugh can think only of Africa and the possibility of return, a hope lost for ever when his mother mysteriously vanishes into the jungle a few years later. At this trauma the childhood memoir breaks off, and the story is taken up decades later in the diary of the elderly Hugh, returning to his uncle’s ‘troubled’ house in Ulverton, where he sifts through his memories and the ‘strong magic’ of his African relics, puzzling over his mother’s disappearance.
Adam Thorpe’s extraordinary first novel, Ulverton, laid the past down like sediment, each chapter a slice of time, beginning in 1650 and ending ‘Here’, and in that way producing a wholly convincing village history in which distant events continue to reverberate through folk memory and legend, delicately but distinctly echoing in place-names and local rhymes. Since then, however, he has preferred to have his narrators grapple with history inside their own lives. The hero of his second novel, the baggy monster Still, is a filmmaker poised on the brink of the millennium, who promises a history of the century and an explication of where it went wrong, but finds himself circling around the points of impact in his own past, focusing ever more closely on the tiny episodes – and tinier glances and gestures within them – which set off the events that spiral us somehow to here and now. The multiplying detail of the past prevents him ever finding the genesis of the horror of the century before the clock chimes, marking the start of the next one.
Still’s historian had a grand project, doomed to failure. The narrator of Pieces of Light is also an archaeologist of time, but the mood of this novel is bleaker and the rummage through history blinkered by self-interest. While Still ran up against the impossibility of locating beginnings, the characters in Pieces of Light suffer from a yearning to return to or reconfigure a time before trauma. As Hugh’s war-ravaged father continues his colonisation of the primordial jungle, his equally shell-shocked Uncle Edward fosters the ‘wildwood’ at the bottom of his garden, hoping that it will one day cover England again, as it did when the climate was African. His passion for prehistoric finds, his championing of nature’s ‘vital force’ and his brandishing of mistletoe at Christmas develop into a fixation with re-enactments of ancient sacrificial rituals in full druidical regalia. Hugh despises his uncle’s prehistoric poses and cod animism, but he, too, is obsessed with the search for ‘vital spirit’ and becomes a Shakespeare conservative, dedicated to the re-creation of 16th-century stances: ‘I’m not turning the clock back, I’m taking it off the wall and mending it.’ However, these gestures towards the past, to theatre’s beginnings in ritual and shamanism, are pale imitations and when the Ulverton mummers beg a leopardskin from Hugh for the Christmas play, they can’t put it on without collapsing into giggles, while the mummers’ director is so inspired by Edward’s writings that he’s driven to the revolutionary act of putting up an anti-McDonald’s sticker on a local landmark.
It is a debased Ulverton that Hugh returns to – as if someone ‘had run off with the real thing, leaving a fake’. After the vibrantly caught child’s-eye view of the Africa memoir, his diary reveals a pompous, mannered old man; where Still’s logorrhoeic narrator, gazing out over millennial London, mimicked the verbal tics and fireworks of Martin Amis, we are now in country-pub Kingsley territory. But as Hugh delves into the mystery of his mother’s disappearance, remembering his malarial visions of her at his bedside, and investigating the local legend of the ‘Red Lady’ believed to be his mother’s ghost, he begins to feel the spirits of the past as strongly as he felt them in his childhood. His detective work, at first jocular and unamazed – ‘Good grief, sounds like something Wilkie Collins might have put on in his drawing room’ – takes him dangerously close to the sources of his trauma, finally implicating him in a murder that looks like satanic ritual. With a prissily Conradian ‘Horrible. Absolutely horrible,’ the diary breaks off as the memoir did, to be resumed as a piece of asylum therapy, intended to help him put into words the wellspring of his horror and thus move beyond it.
Hugh writes the story of his discoveries about the Red Lady in the form of letters to his mother, as though he were back at boarding school, and his relief at the return to the past bubbles through in a resumption of his Thirties Boy’s Own style: ‘I’m doing jolly fine, on the whole.’ Ulverton had a slyly godlike perspective on the local lore that displayed the seepage of the past into the present: here we see the making of a myth – the Chinese whispers, human error and blurring of identity that go to make up the composite Red Lady in whom Hugh is trying to locate his vanished mother. But in the tangle of Ulverton’s ghosts past and present Hugh finds it increasingly hard to hang onto his own personality: the locals persist in calling him by his hated uncle’s surname, and when, hoping for elucidation, he rescues the village historian we met in Ulverton – now, like so much of the place, cancerous – from his hospice, he is nearly incarcerated in his place. His mother’s spirit becomes conflated with that of Rachael, the love of his life stolen by his uncle, and he is torn between the struggle to confront his primal demons and the equally doomed search for a ‘rational’ explanation: the ‘dormant tendrils’ of possible reasons for his mother’s disappearance that uncoil in his mind as he tries to spin a coherent story from the dead-ends of history are the stirrings of madness. The calm vantage-point of Ulverton smoothed the past into a pattern of inevitability: here reality is built on such a perilous tower of incident and coincidence – when Hugh finds the letter that contains the terrible secret of his history, it is almost blown away by the wind – that in the end it is dwarfed by symbol, and the idea of death in a revenge tragedy or pagan ritual looms larger than the reality of the play killing. The act of murder becomes less important than murderous desire. ‘Real, and also unreal!’ as Hugh says of theatre. ‘Like masks or fetishes or words, words, words!’
Hugh’s horrific discovery hinges, not on the fact that he was ousted from paradise, but that he is the progeny of the serpent within it: there is no prelapsarian idyll to return to. The point is made not so much by Hugh’s incoherent narrative as by the poetic correspondences within it: Hugh, his real father and the murder victim all lose an eye, and when even a glass eye from the leopard-skin associated with the murder is mysteriously displaced, the symbolic structure becomes (blindingly) obvious. The connections Hugh makes between Rachael and his mother and the equivalence of his desire – a beginner’s guide to Freudian analysis – have a similar clunkiness; as do the periodic clues and inducements to read on (‘They say the details are important, but I might go on too long. I might lose you before the very bad thing ...’). In fact, Thorpe excels at detail: the densely remembered episodes of Hugh’s boyhood and wartime years hold more conviction than the overtly gripping mystery that seeks to give the book its structure. In these episodes Thorpe subtly reminds us that everyone, natives of Cameroon and Ulverton alike, has their fetishes and juju, whether ancestor worship or superstitious rituals for protection from German bombs, gorilla teeth or taxidermy, medicine men or homeopathy. Even Hugh’s uptight aunt uses human hair to keep the deer off the roses.
Thorpe is telling us both the old story – that there’s horror in the forest, whether it’s an African jungle or an English wood – and its modern, psychoanalytic version: that what lurks there are our own inchoate fears. Hugh doesn’t need to don one of the African masks that terrified him as a child to feel, as his frenzy mounts, that ‘my frontal lobe is bare bone and tinted with ochre. It makes me feel very self-conscious, but I mention it to no one, because I know it’s not real.’ But myth demands closure, and in Pieces of Light the symbols tie up where the narrative doesn’t, and inevitably the discrepancy jars. When Hugh is faced with the truth in his mother’s letters from Africa, he discounts them as forgeries. He is left conjuring the jungle as an Eden innocent of human civilisation, promising his long-lost mother ‘a certain long moment lost in Africa’ that need never end.
Pieces of Light is a layered, complex and hugely ambitious novel and Thorpe’s powers are such that, as with Still (a novel one alternately hopes and fears will never end), even its flaws can seem deliberate. It’s appropriate that a book about modern man’s incapacity to deal with myth should fail to transmogrify Hugh’s breakdown to mythic status; that a ghost story about absence should refuse to solve its own mystery. Pieces of Light deepens and problematises Thorpe’s fictional project – life now under the accumulated weight of then – demonstrating that the ragged edges between ancient and modern are less pleasing than their synthesis, but equally significant. It is the incapacity to accept this that leads Hugh’s uncle into a malign prehistory theme-park and Hugh himself to madness.
The novel closes with Hugh’s mother’s letters, written on her arrival in the African forest ‘so weighted with the heat and vitality of life’, her words perilously preserved on faded, ant-nibbled carbon paper sealed in a trunk with Hugh’s baby clothes. Her voice has the same buoyant immediacy as his childhood memoir, so that stylistically Africa does seem, as Hugh believes it to be, more ‘real’ than England. For most of the book his mother’s symbolic weight has been measured as absence, but after Hugh’s mannered prose and his clumsy evocation of her as primary love object, she appears as the most convincingly imagined character in the book, a mixture of postwar seen-everything briskness and tender, jazz-loving idealist. It is a pity that it is her voice that falls silent, never to emerge from the forest.