The Standing PoolPublication date: 05/06/2008
Two Cambridge academics, the historians Nick and Sarah Mallinson, take a sabbatical with their three small and lively girls in a remote Languedoc farmhouse. But the farmhouse has its own histories, rather more fraught than those the Mallinsons are used to dealing with on the page. Nick once wrote that 'History is more about amnesia than memory.' But what if that amnesia is a saving grace – disturbed at one's peril, like the murk of a standing pool?
As the illusion of Eden retreats, the couple feel the vulnerability of being among strangers, and being strangers themselves – even in their own place, and even to their own children. Sarah frets about the danger of the swimming pool and the nightly visits of the wild boar, while Nick is more concerned by the guns of the local hunters. Meanwhile, however, there is Jean-Luc, the gardener, living alone with his invalid mother in the village, whose private world involves hammering nails into a doll, collecting arcane rubbish, and spying on Sarah's naked dips in the pool. What should the Mallinsons make of him?
Against the distant background of the murderous war in Iraq, The Standing Pool deftly interweaves social comedy with narrative suspense, returning inexorably to the dark and terrifying mysteries that feed at the heart of this thrilling novel.
I wrote this novel in anger: each week there were so many civilian deaths in Iraq, many under our own bombs. Families were destroyed, but we did not really care because we did not know their stories. They were faceless victims of history's cruelty. We care more for a fictional family if we are engaged in its story. Few reviewers understood what I was trying to do, which is no doubt the novelist's fault, but this meant that the ending found disfavour.
Tim Martin: May 24, 2008
Mime artist to novelist: it isn't your usual career trajectory, but it doesn't seem strange when you meet Adam Thorpe. He has an actor's swiftness of movement as he ushers me into his office at the back of the sunny timber-beamed flat in Nîmes where he lives with his family. His desk is heaped with books on the medieval mind (he is writing about Robin Hood), the walls and shelves crowded with tiny paintings. Through the door, his daughter can be heard practising the harp.
Thorpe's books are anything but silent. They're a chatter of voices: boozy pub stories, assizes reports and bundles of letters in his first novel, Ulverton, which plotted three centuries in a fictional Berkshire village; the hepcat-speak of Gilles, the Sixties Parisian teenager who narrates the more recent No Telling.
"I'd always had this struggle between theatre and writing,'' explains Thorpe, "and when I left university I became an actor. I founded my own little touring company, you know, very idealistic, taking theatre to places that had never seen it before. And we lived hand to mouth, I took other jobs - I was a dustman for a bit.'' One of his plays became the germ of Ulverton, which he moved to France to write at the beginning of the Nineties. "And I was teaching drama, taking courses for kids, then studied mime properly at the Desmond Jones school.
"What I was fascinated by,'' he goes on, "was that you could create something out of nothing. I was very old fashioned, actually, my thing was illusion mime: the problem was that mime became combined with dance, shapes, textures, emotions and so on, whereas what I loved was the fact that you could see a door! Where there wasn't one! And of course, it made me ... in my novels there's a lot of gesture, movement, the way people sit ... there's a lot of business. And I think that's from my training. And there's an element ... there's always lots of improvisation in mime ...I like to let my characters do their own thing.''
Thorpe's engrossing eighth novel, The Standing Pool, is set in his adopted South of France. It follows Nick and Sarah Mallinson, a reluctantly ageing Cambridge historian and his second wife, through a six-month sabbatical with their children in a rented house in Languedoc.
The Peter Mayle idyll swiftly sours. Wartime secrets are astir in the village, where a posse of local hunters call the shots. The house's landlord is a shady dealer in looted antiquities from the Middle East, and puts Nick's Leftist principles on their mettle. Then there's the gardener, who is dismembering a doll to make something special in his bedroom and spying on Sarah's morning swims. Like its predecessor, The Standing Pool takes a sympathetic but satirical view of the English middle class. Nick and Sarah's intellectual one-upmanship and their aspirations to wealth and comfort are shrewdly, but not viciously, anatomised. What saves the book from bitterness is Thorpe's poetic eye for detail and image, as well as for the self-justifications of his characters.Like all good satirists, he doesn't consider himself exempt from criticism. "We're doing terrible things,'' he says. "I mean, we're destroying the planet with our way of life, and we've somehow absorbed the outcome of the process that is so destructive, we've absorbed it and turned it into something we can live with. You can be environmentally aware, like myself, and take the plane. I wanted to examine someone who totally knows what's at stake.''
Thorpe's apartness from Britain, he says, makes Englishness an object of fascination for him. "I feel very much European rather than English,'' he says, "in that my cultural life is mainly French. But I think a lot of my books are an examination of what Englishness means. And standing outside England, particularly outside spoken English, is wonderful: people speaking it sound so exotic, and things change very quickly, so you pick up new phrases each time you hear it. I remember the first time I heard someone say 'he's up himself' - this schoolgirl on the train said it literally 50 times, she was so happy with it.''
Many of his novels have been historical, but he isn't fond of the term. "R C Collingwood defined history as the perpetuation of past acts in the present,'' he says, "which I think is wonderful, because when I write a so-called historical novel I'm in the present of that time, and that's how I want the reader to feel.''
The perennial Thorpe subjects - recurrence, loss, the forgetfulness of history - haven't departed in a contemporary setting. The Standing Pool's deepest effects hinge around the parallels between Nick's family and the thousands of families for whom history is made by wars of the West's devising.
"Historians are like novelists,'' says Thorpe. "They try to put some sense of order on the past, whereas the essential point about the past is that it cannot be resurrected. Historians are not writing the truth, they are feigning the truth."And feigning is a medieval term, a positive one, for writing poetry. It's a word they use again and again. I think novelists and historians are feigners of the truth, but in doing so, hopefully, their works become touchstones of the truth.
"Because the sense of the fickleness of evidence - that what seems to be truth can be distorted to suit the present - that's the heart of understanding ourselves and the past.''
Lisa Mullen: June 25, 2008
Adam Thorpe's new novel could be read as a companion piece to his last, Between Each Breath. Both take a scalpel to middle-class smugness via an unsettling encounter with foreign cultures, and both take as their keynote that definitive bourgeois obsession, finding (and deserving?) the perfect house. But while Between Each Breath put its protagonist on the rack of midlife impotence and self-delusion, The Standing Pool is an altogether lighter work, notwithstanding its unsettling atmosphere and gleefully disconcerting denouement.
This year's failed male, Cambridge historian Nick Mallinson, has lost his career path and his voice and must take a six-month sabbatical to regroup. He packs up his family - wife Sarah, their three young daughters and his hippy son-by-a previous-marriage - to a rambling old house in the south of France, dreaming of bucolic simplicity and a lifestyle to match his unwavering eco-leftist belief system. Almost at once, though, his fantasies curl up under the glare of reality: their landlords, the Sandlers - an unrepentantly incorrect Anglo-American couple who specialise in looting antiquities - are hellbent on finessing their house, and instruct the Mallinsons to supervise on their behalf. This brings them into conflict with Jean-Luc, the handyman who broods over the malfunctioning swimming pool and harbours all kinds of grudges against the English, the house, his neighbours and indeed his mother. Thorpe layers on gothic trials and points of conflict to challenge Nick's genial liberalism, all the while slicking events with a scum of menace. The question is not whether something tragic will happen, but whether the family's niceness will be enough to keep them safe. In the end, is safety - or niceness - even an option?
One of the joys of this book is the way Thorpe's trademark strengths - his genius for nuance and featherlight touch with character and dialogue - are brought to bear on a tale which constantly threatens to morph into a wildly unhinged thriller. Unexpectedly satisfying.
Toby Lichtig: June 15, 2008
ADAM THORPE'S last novel, Between Each Breath, was a satire on the Hampstead dinner-party scene, starring an amiable composer mired in bourgeois self-satisfaction, unwilling to take responsibility for his often shoddy actions. Over the years, Thorpe's writing has veered between a variety of settings and periods (1921, 1945, 1968), but in The Standing Pool we remain with the anxieties of the modern English liberal classes.
Hampstead has been replaced by Peter Mayle territory: Thorpe's characters are on a six-month sabbatical in Languedoc. They are 'the Genial Family', comprising Nick Mallinson, a Cambridge history don in his mid-fifties; Sarah, his wife and former pupil; and their three precocious daughters, Tammy, Alicia and Fulvia. Politics pervades the domestic. When the kids argue, Nick sticks a colander on his head and pretends to be the UN Peace Corps; in the children's armoury of insults lurks that rudest of epithets: 'Blairite'.
The Mallinsons are renting a French country pile from a morally dubious Anglo-American couple whom they discovered through an advert. The Sandlers are brash, self-serving, politically hawkish. Mr Sandler is a dealer in antiquities, mostly looted ones. The invasion of Iraq has catalysed a period of booming business for him. 'This is the enemy,' think Nick and Sarah. But the house looks lovely and they decide to take it.
Compromise begets compromise for the Mallinsons. They oppose mobile phones on ideological grounds (coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo is ruining the country), but the house doesn't have a telephone. Thorpe sticks the knife in: 'They had no choice.' An air of unease accompanies their arrival. Nick does his back in and Sarah finds herself 'puzzled by her own pessimism'. History comes to haunt them; it is discovered that a local was assassinated on the property by the Nazis during the war. Bloodshed seems to lurk beneath the house's tranquil surface. Even the local handyman has something troubling about him.
Thorpe steadily increases the tension, prising open the fissures in the Genial Family. He achieves the effect deftly, via a mixture of careful plotting and retrospective revelation, sliding between periods of happiness and strain. Nick's self-satisfaction sometimes manifests itself as touching paternalism. When one daughter mispronounces a word, his heart gives 'a little salmon love-leap'. His wife is stimulating - and young! They still have sex. Who can begrudge him the fact that 'life was good, really'?
But Nick is also a hypocrite and a buffoon, 'the very epitome of the brilliant academic without a single life skill'. 'The bolts on Nick's ideological framework were so loose as to be useless,' Thorpe tells us. 'He'd watched If. . . again recently and sided with the teachers, the well-meaning headmaster. It was terrifying.' So much for the macro; but Nick is too wrapped up in himself to give proper attention to his family. He forgets his children's ages; he bores them with Norse mythology. He has a son from his first marriage whom he regards as 'the one great failure of his life'. Nick tries to embrace the peripatetic Jamie in 'selfless, parental love', but such things can only come naturally.
There is something almost tyrannical about Nick's desire for everything to be 'just so'. It certainly leaves little room for self-expression among the children. But Thorpe's parody of the smug life has a wider target: the cossetedness of Western living in general. The Mallinsons may be 'better' than the Sandlers, but are they any less compromised? What do Nick's anxieties about Chad or environmental degradation actually achieve? In this absorbing and wry comedy of manners, one can't help remembering the dual meaning of the word 'academic'.
Stephanie Cross: June 13, 2008
ALL kinds of evils seethe under the sun in Adam Thorpe's superior seventh novel, set in idyllic southern France. For the Mallinson family a Gallic sabbatical seems, at first, to be just what the doctor prescribed. Forced by his failing voice to take a break from lecturing, Cambridge historian Nick, his wife, Sarah, and their young daughters settle quickly into the Mas des Fosses, a farmhouse with a tragic past. Belonging to the Sandlers, two gloriously nauseating grotesques, the Mas also conceals antique dealer Alan Sandler's illegitimate hoard: treasures pilfered from Iraq. But Sandler's secret pales beside those of Jean-Luc, the property's deranged gardener. Driven to the edge by a bedridden mother, Jean-Luc embarks on a terrifying project in which the unwitting Mallinsons will have a starring role. At times almost comically pregnant with portents, Thorpe's ultimate twists still come as a surprise.
Wincingly precise in his imagery and technically adept, he has here crafted an electric and darkly gleeful read.
Jonathan Beckman: June 7, 2008
Adam Thorpe set his previous novel, Between Each Breath, in Hampstead. He moves in his latest to the liberal intelligentsia's summer hunting ground, the south of France. Nick and Sarah Mallinson, two not quite successful enough Cambridge historians, decamp on their sabbatical to Languedoc with their three young daughters. Their house is rented from the Sandlers, a mercenary pair of art dealers; the husband, Alan, took advantage of the invasion of Iraq to bag a number of archaeological artefacts by dubious means. Intent on completing neglected books and homeeducating their children, the Mallinsons' time dissipates into distraction and peacekeeping between warring kids. Meanwhile, the decidedly weird handyman, Jean-Luc, tends the English lawn that the Sandlers insist on cultivating, in spite of the unsuitable water table and the depredations of the local wild boar. Jean-Luc must also maintain the swimming pool - 'the standing pool' of the title - and the endless adjustments required to keep it algae-free and pH neutral are reflected in the lives of the Mallinsons, whose youthful ardour and ambition have been replaced with a constant paddling to stay afloat amidst domestic and professional demands.
Thorpe's satire on the intellectual class at first seems gentle but has a relentlessness that renders it scorchingly bleak. Nick has failed to become a professor, his academic work has been briefly acclaimed before being forgotten and remaindered and, though he has renounced his solemn Marxism, he yearns for invigorating, active politics. The nearest he gets to that is the occasional whinge about George W. Bush.
Sarah, who was Nick's brilliant graduate student, has found that mothering has swamped her career. Despite being relatively young and in good health, the couple, in their brief moments of respite, ask variations on the same question: what is the point? Not in an I'm-about-to-slit-my-wrists way, but as people of intelligence and imagination who explore the zone between life as it could have been and as it is.
The psychotic element in the story is played out by Jean-Luc, a loner and the village punch-bag, who becomes obsessed by the Mallinsons and spends his spare time building a sculpture out of found objects that is part fetish, part monument to his uncle Fernand who was killed by the Nazis.
The after-effects of the past has always been an abiding concern of Thorpe's, particularly the way it sizzles underneath even detached, antiquarian interest. Houses don't need ghosts to be haunted (Thorpe engineers a brilliant misidentification to underline this point). The Mallinsons, as keen historians, dabble in some local research, blithely unaware of how the uncertain wartime activities of Jean-Luc's father and uncle still determine his strained relations with the rest of the villagers.
Nothing much happens in the novel because essential to the crafting of its characters' psychology is the fact that these are people to whom nothing much happens. And if their lives are petty, peevish and narrow, perhaps it is overkill to expend 400 pages exposing them as such. But Thorpe writes with such elegance and care in defining his characters - Tammy, the Mallinson's eldest, is a wonderful portrait of someone discovering morality and tact without having abandoned yet the cruelty of childhood - that he can mostly be forgiven.
What cannot, however, is the schlocky, falsebottomed ending, which even the author tacitly renounces, and which mars the conclusion to a sensitive and intelligent novel.
Jonathan Gibbs: June 19, 2008
Adam Thorpe has long been acclaimed as a great novelist who doesn't get the profile he deserves.
Maybe that will change with The Standing Pool but, if you're looking for holiday reading, be warned. This is a devilishly perfect horror story, precision tooled to break out the liberal middle classes in a cold sweat; especially those with children.
Thorpe's idyllic setting is Mas du Paradis, a holiday home in the south of France: sprawling, ancient and remote. Owned by a nasty pair of snobbish Kensington types, it has been rented by a much nicer bunch from Cambridge - the genial family as Alan and Lucy snootily call them. Academics Nick and Sarah are on a six-month sabbatical to write about their shared topic of oil as a lubricant of global oppression and spend quality time with their three gorgeous young daughters.
If this sounds like the pipe dream of every middle-aged, middle-class Brit, then Thorpe is one step ahead of you. This paradise is rife with hidden serpents. There are the resentful locals, including the strange gardener Jean-Luc, an unfenced swimming pool just ready for the girls to drown in - and a herd of wild boar roaming the woods.
Thorpe's satirical swipes at Nick and Sarah (and Alan and Lucy) are matched for comedy value by the spot-on evocation of the children's games and nonsense chatter. Which only makes the remorseless ratcheting up of tension all the more unbearable. The chilling climax puts a stake right through the heart of the whole ex-pat fantasy dished up by the likes of Peter Mayle.
Emily Aldred June 21, 2009
When historians Nick and Sarah Mallinson take a six-month sabbatical in Languedoc with their three young daughters, they discover their rented farmhouse was once the scene of a questionable death. As spectators to a community still shellshocked from this tragedy, the Mallinsons find themselves a confidant in handyman Jean Luc. However, as he becomes increasingly voyeuristic and mentally unstable, it begins to seem inevitable that history will repeat itself. Although the book occasionally suffers from overplaying bizarre occurrences, it remains gripping. Above all, The Standing Pool is captivating thanks to its comic glimpses into family life and the touching honesty of children.
Philip Womack: July 11, 2009
The Mallinson family are academics with arcane specialisms, three "adorable'' children and one slightly less adorable older son. Nothing much has gone wrong in their lives: that is, until they rent a French farmhouse. There death hangs over them; ghosts walk on the roof, while their swimming pool mysteriously clouds. The handyman may be a weirdo; the owners are hiding something. Adam Thorpe's prose is thickly layered - almost too much, sometimes. His observation of a close-knit family is exacting. This is an extraordinary novel, pulsing with power and humour, graceful and strange.