Adam Thorpe Home

Pieces of Light

Publication date: 13 Aug 1998


Hugh Arkwright's remote childhood in the Central African bush, and its sudden disruption, leaves him with a legacy of magic, mystery – and tragic loss. Late in his life, he returns to the gaunt house in Ulverton where he was brought up by his uncle, and finds that the old ghosts still walk, the old wounds still fester.

Despite himself, Hugh sets out to reconstruct his past, his history and prehistory – and as he does so the autummnal air of Ulverton begins to take on the taint of corruption. In conjuring forces and familiars he can barely control, Hugh finds himself part of an unravelling mystery – a mystery that leads to vengeance, murder and a sudden, staggering revelation.

Assimilating and at the same time disturbing the mystery thriller tradition of Buchan, Stevenson and Wilkie Collins, and the ghost stories of Poe and M.R. James, Pieces of Light is a modern novel steeped in a resonant past: where rural England and colonial Africa collide.

This is the novel in which my early African experiences found their place. And much else besides: boarding school, for instance. Or the sense of not quite belonging anywhere, except for a place that might not exist except in the imagination.


Scotland on Sunday

Tom Adair: August 23, 1998

LIKE Hugh Arkwright, the leading voice in his latest novel, Adam Thorpe has a tricky time of it. Pieces of Light is an intricate, ambitious book, set largely in England between the wars, and in the early years of this decade, close to Ulverton - the village in which Thorpe set his debut novel. It is haunted by Africa, by darkness, by human hunger and by its plot.

Thorpe longs to create a fiction banquet, fat with intrigue. He succeeds, in a style that is never obtrusive but always engaging, projecting a steadily gripping narrative. It has the force and fascination of autobiography - Hugh's story - plus the resonance of poetry, and a clarity of detail and sense of place found in documentary.

Yet it is all of these things and none. These dimensions are swamped by secrecy and by otherness, the scattered bits of a story that Hugh, as yet, does not understand. He had been "the only white child in equatorial Africa", marinated in its darkness, observing its strange colonial customs, "village parleys, feasts, firelit dances" and games of cricket.

Hugh labels it, portentously, his life "before the Fall." For odd things happened there: white mischief and interference, frights and death.

Sent to England, Hugh is forced to live in memory, homesick for Africa. Hugh leaves school, he becomes embroiled in wartime heroics and after the war he succeeds as a celebrated director of plays by Shakespeare. Is this irony or coincidence? For his life wears Shakespeare's clothes, that reeling sense of inner tragedy, and of paradise, lost times over.

Loss defines him. Greatest of all is the loss of his mother, not long after his exile from Africa.

Later he faces the loss of Rachael, his wartime love.

Mother had disappeared into the bush. Rachael married his guardian, Uncle Edward. Now Uncle Edward too is dead, Rachael long gone, and Hugh in his seventies has returned to the house on Ulverton's edge: the tangible portion of his legacy.

Village life, the pub and gossip, amateur drama, give the book its sense of real life lived, its walk-on amusement and minor distractions from the potent ghosts of history. Then Hugh reads about the Red Lady, seen over decades in the grounds of the family home.

His mother's ghost? He discovers a trunk, an 'African' box, its contents sealed. Something seismic is on the cards.

Hugh begins a series of letters to mother, as though she is alive, disclosing the trials of his life. Hugh's state of mind becomes a matter of conjecture. Poetic and sinister revelations are hinted at. The woods around the house are the site of violence. Police remove the trunk.

The novel's endgame, its last 80 pages, change the narrative's pace and tone. We hear a new voice. That of Hugh's mother, from the time before Hugh is born. From farthest Africa. It is one of the finest pieces of slow detonation in modern fiction. Yet, paradoxically, it pulls the plot together, reshaping the landscape, sense and sensation in cahoots. It also marks Thorpe's induction into the no-fluke hall of talents. Ghost story, thriller, travelogue, epistolary episodes of pathos, Thorpe, unfazed, commands them all.

Pieces of Light is as fine a book as I've read this year and Thorpe's best yet.

Glasgow Herald

Carl Macdougall: August 20, 1998

HUGH Arkwright is sure he is being sacrificed, certain he is going to die. Instead he is being prepared for England, where he will live with his mother's brother, Uncle Edward, whose existence, house, and lawn are mentioned at every opportunity.

"English woods. Bluebells, and foxes, primroses and lovely trees, dappled light, nightingales. You'll be able to breathe there. No malaria, no tropical fevers, no frightful ants or snakes or crocodiles . . ." his mother says.

England is civilisation and home; though as far as his mother is aware, Hugh is the only white child in West and Central Africa, which is the place he considers home, where he comes across another world where locations have a deeper significance, where the forest is powerful, creatures call his name, and spells written on scraps of paper and buried in the earth can, he believes, cause hair to fall, toes to drop off, and crocodiles to attack in the night.

Adam Thorpe's first novel, Ulverton, was a work of historical reconstruction, tracing an English village from the return of a Cromwellian soldier in 1650 to the script of a TV documentary on another contemporary hero, the property developer. It exemplified a fascination with place and belonging, themes at the heart of this, his third, novel.

It is told in three parts, though the book is securely planned and the individual parts give the narrative a shape which emerges through a series of repeated images and motifs. The novel never recaptures the energy or lyricism of the first section, which takes Hugh to seven when his mother disappears into the jungle, and he is forced to return to England to live in Ulverton with Uncle Edward. The second section finds Hugh aged 70, still trying to make sense of his mother's disappearance and consulting psychiatrists. The tone has shifted to one of suspense and suspicion, gradually revealing a plot which exposes family hatred and murder. Africa and Wiltshire are strangely alike as Hugh's ghosts pursue him and the naive simplicity of his mother's dream kingdom is viciously exposed.

In the final section we move through Hugh's mother's perspective, that of the colonial wife whose ambition is to bring enlightenment to a backward people. It binds the narrative, a thread we can trace back to the beginning, exposing her patronising simplicity to a complex place and people her infant son instinctively understood, but even her one-dimensional perspective carries echoes of Conrad.

Thorpe's achievement is to craft a thriller which fulfils every suspense criteria while asking serious questions about human behaviour and belief, history and belonging, and the place of magic and ritual in a civilised society.

Mail on Sunday

Philip Hensher: August 9, 1998

Pieces of Light begins with a small English boy growing up in Africa between the wars. To him, England is a faraway, half-heard-of place. To his parents, on the other hand, it is home. Hugh is growing up shaped by the magic and the jujus of Africa. To his parents, the evidence of black tribal arts which surfaces in their lives - the ritual tattoo which Hugh submits to, for instance - is cause for fear and terror.

Going to England for the first time, Hugh finds a place of infinite strangeness and exoticism. It is also a place where the secret rites of his tropical childhood find curious but unarguable parallels.

It is just after the Great War, a human sacrifice on a scale to alarm even the most bloodthirsty of tribesmen, an event which calls into question the whole notion of civilisation and barbarism. Living with his uncle, a keen archaeologist based in Ulverton - this is becoming Thorpe's fictional territory - Hugh starts to see that the ancient ghosts, the placation of the ancestors, belong neither to 'barbaric' Africa nor to 'civilised' England.

And when his mother, in Africa, simply walks out of the house one day and disappears into the hugeness of unmapped lands, Hugh acquires a ghost of his own. The novel is an attempt to make sense of this single act; the renunciation is dropped into the middle, and around it explanations, mysteries, and the sharp pain of the abandoned son are allowed to cluster.

The disappearance is still unexplained when we move sharply forward to see Hugh in Ulverton, in old age, now a distinguished theatrical director with some ideas about history and recurrence which strike his contemporaries as obsessive and rather mysterious. It is for the reader to begin to understand that this is not just a mystery that needs to be solved, but a psychic wound for which no cure is likely to be found.

Pieces of Light has its flaws - the portrait of Hugh as a small boy is not quite there, and in general the characterisation is less vivid than the massive, slow-moving response to land and history. But the visionary sense of England as violent and exotic as Africa, the sense of tribal jujus, of ancient and forgotten magic rippling under the surface of the land, seizes the reader fiercely and pulls him onwards more forcefully than the plot.

A rich and suggestive book, the appeal of Pieces of Light lies in its curious strength, almost unlike a novelist's strength. Its vision is not primarily of the human interactions and emotions which motivate most novels, but a poetic and complex approach to land and history.

It is to Adam Thorpe's credit that he has put an abstract and slightly forbidding idea into terms of a human drama, and into pages which, for the first time in his writing, unite richness, memorability and ordinary, fresh appeal.

Sunday Times

Stephen Amidon: August 9, 1998

Africa might be known as the Dark Continent, but when it comes to mystery and magic, it does not have a patch on Adam Thorpe's West Country. In his sweeping third novel, Pieces of Light, one is as likely to come upon primitivistic sorcery in the local Green Man pub as in Hemingway's Green Hills. Thorpe's fictional world is a place where a ghost can be a cricketer just as easily as a shaman, and where human sacrifice is required to appease a demented politician just as surely as a river god.

Hugh Arkwright, the novel's troubled narrator, bridges the gap between these two deceptively similar cultures. Born in 1920s Cameroon, he is raised by his nurse mother and District Officer father in an Edenic backwater where the very air seems shot through with magic. As perhaps "the only white child in the whole of West and Central Africa", Hugh enjoys a jungle pastoral in which a ju-ju fetish pouch replaces his schoolbook bag and where friendly native servants supersede bullying public-school classmates. In those grim post-war years, it as close to paradise as an English boy could get.

This state of innocence comes to a shattering end, however, when Hugh is sent back to England to be looked after by an eccentric uncle, a small-time writer and theosophical sage who is, in fact, a border-line lunatic driven half-mad by the trenches of the First World War. But, to Hugh, the woods surrounding his uncle's West Country estate seem as populous with spirits as those Cameroon forests, even if the English variety prove far more hostile than their African cousins. After a difficult few years under his uncle's whimsical reign, he is once again shipped off, this time to a middle-drawer boarding school where the headmaster makes the crocodiles of his birthplace seem downright cuddly.

By the time the Second World War comes, Hugh has largely outgrown his budding pagan religiosity and has developed a scepticism that causes him to embrace Shakespeare as his new god. He also falls in love with the bewitching Rachael, the daughter of one of his uncle's disciples. It is an affair that eventually ends in tears, however, as the flawed girl succumbs to his uncle's dubious charms and, maddeningly, becomes his aunt.

Hugh goes on to become an eminence in the British theatre, adored by traditionalists but reviled by trendy critics for his "fetishistic superstition for the past". This penchant for nostalgia comes literally to haunt him when, as an eye-patched septuagenarian, he returns to close up his uncle's estate, only to find himself embroiled in a deadly serious search for the truth about his own past. The possibility of madness and murder intrudes, drawing him closer to the devastating epiphany contained amid the forgotten detritus of his colonial childhood.

Pieces of Light is an estimable work, shot through with the vivid imagination and deep intelligence that won Thorpe such praise for his debut, Ulverton. The book's scope is remarkable, describing a riverboat journey into 1921 Cameroon with the same lucid authenticity as a Lancaster bomber-run over 1944 Hamburg. Thorpe is a marvellous stylist, describing an old man's closed eyelids as "stretched like chewing gum", and depicting a doomed fighter plane that "trails a ribbon of sparks she won't ever be able to get rid of, like an animal's hurt, perplexing". He also proves himself a keen chronicler of human folly, whether it be the clapped-out European colonials who have "gone to bush" in Africa, or Bloomsbury frauds who embrace the pantheistic drivel popular in the years leading up to the Second World War.

If the book has a flaw, it is Thorpe's tendency to overplay his thematic hand in bringing out the story's supernatural underpinnings. A subplot involving a horrific West Country murder (apparently committed by a leopard) seems overly stagy, as does the local legend of a wandering "Red Lady" who might be the ghost of Hugh's long-lost mother. But these are small quibbles in an otherwise fine book, which never lets us forget that mystery can just as easily exist in the shadow of a Tesco as in the wilds of Timbuktu.


John Burnside: August 1, 1998

SIX years ago, Adam Thorpe's first novel, Ulverton, was published to considerable critical acclaim. Not only was the book an astonishingly fine debut, it was a powerful and imaginative tour de force, a subtle and playful investigation into the nature of history and truth. A year later, Malcolm Bradbury in The Modern British Novel set Ulverton alongside works by such writers as AS Byatt and Peter Ackroyd, describing it as: "What Byatt nicely calls 'greedy writing', recovering the past as a hidden narrative reusable for the present. 'Furtive nostalgia', this has been called; but it is more, a complex way not just of recovering the life of the past but of relating fiction itself to an earlier tradition."

The danger of spying, whether upon our contemporaries or our ancestors, is that we may learn things we did not want to learn - that our sense of who we are, and where we belong, may be eroded by the new histories we are forced to construct. The question of who we are and where we come from is one of the central concerns of Thorpe's third novel, Pieces of Light, a work of quite extraordinary richness and subtlety. What begins as an apparent memoir, a touching and slightly disturbing account of the narrator Hugh's early years in colonial Africa, is eventually revealed as an exercise, a therapeutic act prescribed by psychiatrists treating a much older Hugh, who has undergone some kind of appalling trauma. In the central sections of the novel, this trauma is gradually revealed through Hugh's letters to his lost mother: a complex tale of deceit, family hatred and murder, in which the one-eyed hero, like Wotan, discovers the secrets of his life and is horrified by what he learns. Throughout, Thorpe maintains a near-painful suspense, so that the reader is kept guessing until the horrifying conclusion. In this sense, Pieces of Light is a thriller of the first order. It is also a finely metaphysical work, enquiring into the nature of what one character calls "vital force", a force that might equally well be called original sin, whether expressed through the dangerous currents of magic and ritual that persist, not only in Africa, but also in rural Wiltshire, or through drama, with its roots in human and animal sacrifice. The novel is also a subtle exploration of the question of identity: the colonialists in Africa have only the most banal and naive ideas of what it is to be English, and Hugh, who has already "gone native" at the start of the book, has no sense of belonging to England at all.

Pieces of Light begins and ends in Africa, with two very different views of "the dark continent." At the beginning, we are given Hugh's picture of the place he will continue to see as home long after he has left it: through the child's eyes we encounter the unsettling mysteries of African life, especially the rituals and fetishistic beliefs of his friend Quiri, who teaches the boy not only the language but also the magical rites of the "natives".

At the end of the book, however, we are given Hugh's mother's perspective: Africa is "in a backward, primitive state" and she and her husband are there "to coax her forward." This is the Africa where she must tend "a score of newborn babies, shuddering from tetanus, as the umbilical cord is cut with the nearest rusty knife."

"Circumcision," she adds, "is practised on both boys and girls, likewise. The poultice for open wounds is animal dung. Everyone is terrified of upsetting the local spirits, which live in everything."

Thorpe's achievement in Pieces of Light is to show us that these two Africas exist side by side, that, in ritual, a man can become a leopard yet remain a man, and that, most important of all, nobody's knowledge is final. Hugh becomes Wotan, who gave up his eye for knowledge, only to understand, finally, that to know is only to become aware that everything is provisional: a meaningful pretence, like the mask his mother sends home from Africa, or the gestures of a practised actor. At the same time, however, he is able to see, through the pain and horror, that the pretence - the mask, the gesture - is there for a reason, because it is the only protection we have against an indifferent world.

In Pieces of Light, Thorpe revisits the village of Ulverton, whose history was the subject of his first novel. In many ways, this is a much darker book than its predecessor. It is also a more accomplished work. For whatever reasons, Ulverton was passed over by the Booker judges in 1992; I can only hope that, this year, that oversight will be remedied, and Pieces of Light will be recognised for the masterpiece it is.


Carrie O'Grady: October 9, 1999

An ambitious and utterly absorbing novel that pulls you in and never quite lets you go. Adam Thorpe has returned to Ulverton to tell the story of Hugh Arkwright, whose past hides a secret. Raised in Cameroon, he is sent out of the dark Conradian jungle to live with his uncle Edward in the West Country. By the time he reaches middle age, his life has been splintered by war, illness and family skeletons in a number of closets. We see Hugh refracted through three lenses: his narrative, his journal and, most disturbingly, his letters to his absent mother. When the truth finally comes to light, we feel as though we've known Hugh for years - and don't want to say goodbye.