Sunday, 9 November 2014

Ulverton - Adam Thorpe

Amazingly, Ulverton (1992) was Adam Thorpe's first novel, an astonishing achievement in itself, in that it's not a novel in the customary sense.  There are no continuing characters for us to follow, no integrated narrative sweep.  Instead, what we get are twelve excepts from the history of the village - itself, not explicitly located or described.  Each segment has a different voice and a different format.  We begin in 1650 with someone just telling his story, these being pre-literate days in Ulverton (albeit far from the case in history).  We end in 1988 with the post-production script of a documentary.  In between we have journals, a drunken man spinning his tale for more drink, a draft account of being the amanuensis to a forgotten cartoonist and, my favourite stylistically, the description of photographic plates which we don't of course see for ourselves.  Ulverton the village is only a tenuous link; by no means all of the action takes place there.  Instead, the great over-arching link is the land itself, how it is tended, improved, used and even desecrated.

Inevitably, given the truly mixed bag we are offered, some parts work better than others.  For me, unfortunately, the last two chapters (the cartoonist and the documentary) failed terribly.  I hated the former and got just plain bored with the latter.  Personally, I would have ended with the first world war.  The discovery which joins the beginning to the end could have fitted better, and more symbolically, in 1914.  That, though, is personal taste.  Ulverton remains an incredible achievement.  And I liked it well enough to buy Thorpe's most recent novel, Hodd.

Incidentally, what a fabulous cover - the woodcut by Jonanthan Gibbs.  It was that which caught my eye, so it certainly did its job.

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