Ulverton – Adam Thorpe

27 September 2014
Chapters 1-4…
…not numbered chapters at all, in fact, but monologues spoken or written by different characters separated in time by a generation or more. All that connects them, aside from a glancing reference or two to characters we recognise from a previous story, is Ulverton itself and the undefined area that surrounds it. There are themes running through, notably sex and money, but really it’s more basic than that. These stories are about the ways people manage, or fail, to survive. Each chapter is announced by the year of its setting, on a page of its own in 300-point text.

1650 – Return is narrated by an illiterate shepherd looking back on a time when, aged fifty, he already regarded himself as old. The return is of a younger man in the uniform of Cromwell’s army, who had left his wife because he had hoped to bring back – what? – something to add to his farm’s meagre pickings. He’s been ruined by the trauma of it. He’d shaken the hand of General Cromwell himself, he tells the shepherd early on. But he is a haunted man and can’t help telling also of how he killed women and children in Drogheda the previous year. The shepherd wonders whose body he plundered for the red ribbons he proudly shows, and what fingers he has cut off for the rings he says he has sewn into his coat. He’s brought them back for his wife, but the ribbons are little more than rags. What the shepherd doesn’t tell the man is that, having been left alone for five years, his wife has remarried. Years after the event he both blames himself for the omission and finds justifications for it.

The only way to describe the existence is pinched. It’s cold and there is only just enough food. Even the comfort to be derived from the stories visible in the paintings, window-glass and statues in the church has been wiped out by Cromwell’s men. He remembers the priest looking on as they hacked and smashed, forcing a smile. The shepherd wonders about the reception the soldier is going to get from his wife and her new husband, but he can make little out when he peers through a chink in a window-covering at the house. The next day, following a typically gruelling visit to help at the awkward birth of a lamb in a neighbouring village, he calls on them. But there’s no soldier, and he gets no response to his hints regarding what might have happened. The wife, who has a reputation for witchcraft, is interested when he mentions the rings in the coat. The shepherd does not leave a share of the meat he has received in payment that day, after the new husband pretends they have plenty to eat. Pinched.

At least there’s the marital bed. Hah. His wife quotes scripture at him – this is not at all the only scripture the shepherd hears that only detracts from the joys of life – that if there is no intention to procreate, there is to be no sex either. It’s been 20 years. So… when, as he looks in a ruined hovel in the woods, the farmer’s wife arrives and makes moves to have sex with him, he’s up for it. It becomes quite a regular thing, and sometimes she whispers the name of her first husband in his ear. Small mercies? Or merely confirmation that the world of Cromwell’s Commonwealth is a Godless, superstition-ridden place? Whatever, she dies before he does, and he thinks, ‘I was a little mad, probably.’ I’m not arguing.

1689 – Friends is different, but the religion is as problematic for this speaker as it was for the first. He is the local clergyman, giving a sermon that is one long self-justification. We don’t know the nature of his supposed transgression until near the end, but the responses of his congregation force him to scold them: ‘Snigger not.’ It’s a satire, but of the darkest kind as he shamelessly – and vainly – attempts to make use of his position and the respect he feels is due to him. Times have changed, and it’s hard to imagine any congregation being swayed by a story that rests on a fanaticism few are likely to share. (I remember that this novel was published in 1992, when a different kind of religious extremism was already becoming a global, highly unappealing fact of life.)

What we find out near the end was that this man was discovered, following an unexpected blizzard on the way back from a village over the hill, with his two clerical colleagues dead nearby. One was old, and had died of the cold. The other, however, was young. And naked. And the speaker was keeping himself alive with his clothes. And something else: the older man was not properly covered either, but was half inside the rotting, scraped-out carcase of a sheep.

How to explain it? He does it by describing the sudden onset of the storm in the most vivid terms, and then alleging how, eventually, the young cleric had thrown off his own clothes in a fit of religious ecstasy. His head had been turned by the new ‘enthusiasm’, described by the speaker in ever more extreme terms. He blithely casts aside the curate’s description of the Bible as mere words as one of his ‘filthy stinking blasphemies’, but on the hill he had to turn his attention to the older man. A sheep’s fleece, still attached to the bones, was all that could be found for him, but he realised it wasn’t enough. By which time the young man… and so on. What I didn’t mention was that the little outcrop beneath which they seek shelter is known universally – snigger not – as the Devil’s Knob.

The upshot is the discovery of the clergyman under it. ‘And if I had indeed swaddled myself in the garments so venially cast to me, so foolishly cast off, who says I did evil?’ And so on. He can threaten all he wants but, as I said, times have changed. Like the reader, the congregation probably feels that he protests too much.

1712 – Improvements is another oddity. In the Acknowledgments section Adam Thorpe mentions his indebtedness to Edward Lisle’s Observations in Husbandry (1757), and this is the story in which he determinedly makes use of his research. Diary entries take us from ‘a nipping January’ to early in the following year, and the subject is mainly farm management. It’s all about seed-drills, manure, the planting of hedging for shelter and, literally, dozens of other matters of concern to the 18th Century farmer…

…and a horrible story emerges frankly (and, let’s face it, implausibly) in the same pages. His wife, never an emotionally strong woman, begins to show signs of growing mental health problems. These aren’t helped when she realises that her long-term coldness in bed has led him to seek solace elsewhere. It isn’t only about sexual incontinence. He is obsessed by the idea of leaving the farm to a male heir, but their only son has died young and when their maid makes it clear that she is very willing to lift her skirts for him, he decides she will be able to give him the son he craves. He’ll pay her, of course. Despite his bland reporting of it amongst his critiques of harvesting techniques and the poorness of the chalky soil, it’s sordid stuff. And it becomes more so. There are couplings visible at the edge of vision or, following the drunken harvest supper, in full view. The narrator catches sight of the maid, heavily pregnant, with a labourer entering her from behind ‘like a beast’ and he worries about this wetting of his son’s head. She becomes bold, demands a higher payment if she’s to keep quiet…. In the end he pays her a pound, nearly three times the original sum agreed. She bears him a daughter.

Meanwhile, there’s an inevitability – I suspect I’m going to use that word a lot – about what happens to his wife. We recognise something like clinical depression in her behaviour. In the most symbolic act in the chapter she tears to pieces the harvesters’ corn dolly after he has confiscated the one she has been nursing like a baby – beneath the blandness of his description it’s a gut-wrenching moment – and we are not at all surprised when, in November, he finds her hanging. He isn’t doing much better himself, seeing her ghost more than once in the days following her death. This is after he has learnt that his longed-for son and heir is in fact a girl and, mimicking the efforts of an editor working with a near-illegible manuscript, Thorpe has the text breaking up into ellipses and square-bracketed conjectures. Our man does his best to keep it together so, following an entry about the maid’s new demands and her rejection of the idea that she keep the girl, he writes about his plans, his annual profit and, last of all, ‘This day I smelt [spring?]’ Oh yeh?

1743 – Leeward takes the epistolary form of many novels of the era. The young wife of an old aristocrat writes excitedly to her lover about how she can’t wait to see him again and… and so on. It’s the old story, and her tale of disappointment, unfolding over many months, follows the most familiar trajectory of all the chapters so far. He had been working as a tutor for the son of one of the local gentry to fund his studies and, it seems, their affair consisted of little more than sexual couplings in her room. She turns its ingredients of secrecy and risk into a romance, but Thorpe lets us see the sordid truth of it. His replies, which we never see, are less regular and clearly much less full and effusive. She resorts to sending money and ever more expensive gifts to retain his interest as she looks forward to the passionate reunion we know will never come.

So far, so predictable. But by now we’re used to Thorpe threading other stories between the lines spoken or written by his narrators, so her tale is not the only one in this chapter. Mid-18th Century England is a brutal place, as emerges in different ways. The woman has given birth to a son just before she writes her first letter, and she is to be ‘confined’ during her recovery. By the end of the chapter she has been locked away from March to September, being driven to distraction by boredom in Thorpe’s sardonic take on the madwoman in the attic. From the start she tells her lover – and Thorpe alerts the reader – how risky it is for the maid and servants to smuggle letters in and out. She takes great pains to keep them secret by hiding each of hers in a bundle of others especially written for this purpose so that her old aunts, she jokes, must be surprised to receive so many. Her long-term imprisonment lets the reader know, if not the woman, that her subterfuges have not been successful. Her old husband pretends to be chastely affectionate, but he has his heir and can punish her in his own way. (She thinks the child is her lover’s. We don’t know what her husband thinks, or if he cares.)

It gets worse. The chapter’s eponymous ‘Leeward’ is a black boy who is to be her servant – it’s typical that the title refers to one who seems so marginal – and he helps an old white serving-man to smuggle the letters. The lord must know all about it. When, at the end of the correspondence the woman’s lover returns a large package of her gifts they are caught as the man passes it on to the boy, and they are charged with theft. The white servant is to be tried and ‘I am to be released, at my husband’s entreaty – he is full of kindness – to attend the spectacle if he is to hang.’ The black boy is beaten: ‘I heard his screamings – tied up – carried on the first ship … direct for the West Indies.’ Brutal.

There’s a typically sour little grace-note in a reference to the lord’s projected purchase of land to bring in extra income for his expensive tastes. He is buying Plumm Farm, which we recognise as the one from the previous chapter. The farm has been ‘well handled but poor – there is a woman husbands it, a little proud – there is some scandal attached to her birth….’ Ah.

1 October
Chapters 5-8
Is this book a difficult read? It isn’t an easy read. I’ll come back to that… and I’ll come back to why I think it’s so impressive. Sex isn’t such a recurrent theme now, but money is. And, in ways that were unthinkable in the supposedly egalitarian days of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, a passive acceptance of one’s God-given lot gives way to something else. Adam Thorpe is fascinated by the hierarchies of the English class system, and what appears to be its resilience to any amount of questioning. In Leeward, the hierarchy had been safely in place. A wife misbehaves and the arbitrary sacrifice of two people from the lower orders is merely part of her punishment. The power of the ruling class – over women and other races as well as over the labouring classes – is absolute.

In 1775 – Dissection we read the letters of another woman writing to a seemingly undeserving man. As in Leeward, the love is all on one side and the title seems obscure… and that’s where the similarities end. An illiterate mother dictates needy, pleading letters to her unappreciative son who has left the village for London. He doesn’t reply… and then it seems he does, because her reply concerns his arrest. He seems to have stolen a hat, is in prison awaiting trial and, later, execution. Ok… except none of it rings true as six months pass while she writes pleading letters to the King and her son fleeces his mother for money. The ‘dissection’ of the title is the threat he seems to be dangling over her, that his body will be cut down and used for experiments if she doesn’t pay up. In April – the crime took place in September – he is pardoned.

None of which covers even the half of it. The man with the pen is ‘Mr john Pounds tailer’, as he writes it, and it isn’t only his awful spelling that distances us. Gradually, there comes to be another degree of separation as he adds his own postscripts to what has been dictated to him. He starts to offer admonishments – the woman is shocked by the ‘terbl tthings’ her son writes – then seems to become suspicious: ‘we aint faint hartes as ye say but we ent fooles neithr.’ In the last two letters John Pound has lost all patience, and taunts the son with details of what he gets up to with his mother: he has ‘* thy mother and hev rubbd her duggs with my * for eche leter rit may the divil taik thee.’

When he finds out about the pardon ‘Mr Pounds trembled with Shock,’ writes the mother in a letter dictated to the curate. So it’s a comic moment? Well, up to a point. She has been telling her son of the black ‘wen’ on her breast, as big as a coin and growing. She had been hoping that a kiss from the son she had suckled might effect a cure. It seems more unlikely now than it ever did.

1803 – Rise is about a lot of things. Spoken by a jobbing carpenter during a drinking session paid for by an indulgent stranger, it covers the pride of the craftsman, a harsh boss whose only interest is in serving his betters and how, really, their ‘betters’ know nothing. Discontent remains unspoken, coming out in private references to the ‘Ladybitch’ and mutterings among the workers and their wives that the hours they are forced to work are grossly excessive. It’s all made complicated by deference. The old carpenter speaks proudly of the rare skill of Abraham, the master joiner who is their boss. Abraham in his turn defers to the people he works for, making his men work until eleven at night. It’s incipient capitalism in miniature, combined with the rigid protocols of the English class system. But what can they do?

What they do is play a trick on Abraham that takes the speaker what seems like most of the evening to recount. Abraham is God-fearing, so one of the men has the idea of the three of them climbing a tree and booming down to him as the voice of God. It works. Abraham’s unthinking faith persuades him to believe the threat that working his men beyond eight will keep him out of heaven. Another rare moment of comedy, and a victory for the working man…

…but in 1830 – Deposition things are back to normal. The verbatim testimony of local witnesses present at the agrarian ‘Swing’ riots of that year alternates with the letters (or imagined letters) being composed by the bored lawyer assigned to sit in judgment. Both the testimony and the letters can begin and end mid-sentence, as though our man allows his mind to phase in and out of focus on what is being said in the makeshift court. When he is not explaining to the recipient of his letters how she might persuade her father to let her marry him – in Thorpe’s ironic twist on the usual order of things, the lawyer might be lord of this little world but he isn’t good enough for the woman’s father – he is more likely to be making wry comments about the unsightliness and stink of the locals. Is he listening to anything they say?

It doesn’t matter, and that is Thorpe’s point. He represents the notoriously draconian response to the riots of 1830, and he will give his masters what they expect of him. He might have a fantasy of independence – albeit financed by that eternal standby of the down-at-heel man with ambition, the rich wife – but in this court he is no more than cogwheel in the implacable machinery of state. However just their grievances – and Thorpe lets us hear these in detail, how the improvements and labour-saving ideas we first saw in 1712 have developed into equipment that really does take away their livelihoods – we know the alleged ringleaders will be transported or hanged.

There’s a little coda, one last gasp of protest. The lawyer is staying with the local squire, and has been following the progress of his latest landscape project. The obsession of the idle rich with tinkering with the look of the very land that sustains them is a constant source of sardonic bewilderment among the labouring classes and this time, uniquely, they make their feelings known. The squire has had his men carving a horse into the chalk of a hill visible from the hall, and the lawyer is present at the damp little celebration marking its completion. In the thin frosty light before dawn the next morning when he looks out he sees – ‘Black, black as tho’ of a sudden cast into deathliness….’ He realises that for some time the villagers – ‘these secret surly creatures’ – must have saved and scraped every last bit of ash and soot to black out the insolent whiteness of the horse. It’s a hopeless gesture the lawyer doesn’t even begin to understand.

In 1859 – Shutter the speaker, describing her photographs of local scenes, is as distant from the experience of the labouring classes as the lawyer in Deposition. Unlike him, she seems able to recognise some of the discomforts of their impoverished lives, but it’s the sensibility of the confirmed aesthete that is touched in her. Look at the precise way the lens picks out the lines on the face of that old woman, ostracised and living alone on the edge of the community for nearly 30 years since she testified in court. Look at the diamond-like beauty of the droplets of moisture at the ends of each strand of thatch on the hovel, ‘transforming what was sullen and coarse into a sublime perfection.’ She photographs every stratum of society, proud that her art, like that of the Dutch masters, makes no distinction between the aristocrat and the peasant. There’s no need to comment about the depth or otherwise of her perception. She mentions the transportation of the previous blacksmith for his role in the riots, but only in passing.

Thorpe takes us somewhere else in the descriptions of her final photographs. The exteriors and interiors of Egyptian tombs offer more opportunities to satisfy her aesthetic sensibilities – but no more insights into the lives of the people who created them than she gained in the English village. These are scenes ‘that my ignorance could not provide an iconography for.’ If that sounds glib it doesn’t as we read because, as always, Thorpe never spells it out. And there’s another strand. In passing – this correct Victorian woman seems incapable of anything direct – she drops a hint, in parenthesis: ‘I need not mention the problems of fine blown sand in the mechanism, or indeed – I may add with feeling – of cholera.’ It kills her in the end – I can’t think of any other explanation for her description of the final photograph ending mid-sentence – as Thorpe completes an idea he had begun in the Egyptian section. There, the breath of the archaeologists begins to destroy the murals they are so proud of finding – and the billowing smoke from her ten pans of flash-powder won’t have helped. That final photograph includes a self-portrait in a bath-chair and, proud technician to the end, she is explaining how she did it as she breathes her last. Life? A brief thing. It’s been a constant consolation to her that her photographs will last forever.

So far, each of these eight narratives is more layered and rich than most novels. But they aren’t just cleverly-written short stories. There are always those links to earlier chapters and, through thematic threads that come and go, the building up of a complex picture of a society that changes over time whilst almost everything stays the same. And I’m only half-way through.

4 October
Chapters 9-11
1887 – Stitches, written entirely in a dense West Country dialect, is almost impossible to make sense of. Not entirely: if you persist with it you can catch the drift of what this old man is telling you… but you feel you’re missing a lot and, because nothing is careless in this novel, you wonder what it might be that you’re not getting. You also wonder, because you can’t believe Adam Thorpe hasn’t made it obscure for a reason, what that reason might be. Perhaps it’s about the voices of this particular class not being heard by the likes of you and me because we don’t bother to listen. Or perhaps it’s to do with interpretations of history: this man is telling us things about events we know, and we pick up on what sounds familiar. But there’s a lot we don’t hear because we can’t really be bothered to make the effort: I experimented by re-reading a section, and it definitely makes more sense the second time. But my God.

All the themes are in there, sometimes tangentially and sometimes heightened. This man’s memory goes back before the riots and the enclosures that contributed to the workers’ discontent. In fact, the raw hatred felt by them emerges even more strongly in this chapter than in any before, the deference no more than a mask. A greeting to one of them on the road – this monologue takes place during a long walk – is presented in shout-out capitals. The lord of the manor is ‘Lordyshits’ but, if I’m reading this right, there’s no urge to political action in what we’re hearing, just the sure and certain knowledge that the ruling class and its mystifying behaviour are utterly alien. The humanity we see in this chapter is all in the activities and everyday sufferings of ordinary people. In the film Gosford Park I can remember the housekeeper explaining that looking after the upper classes is like caring for babies. But the babies in this case have adult needs and compulsions and wield the power of life and death.

But the main impression is one of density. There are something like 500 words to a closely-printed page, largely unpunctuated so that a memory collides, in ways that seem random, with an imagined conversation or a warning to mind the gate. And like the print, the content is as dense as cross-hatching. As our man takes us along tracks and through gates we get more layers added to what we know, references to family names we recognise from generations back, events whose details have been rubbed away or have grown into legend. And there’s a twist on an earlier story that is as wry as we’ve come to expect. The photographer’s glass plates, the ones she know would outlive their subjects, are to be thrown out. The speaker uses them as cold-frames, is occasionally surprised by a ghostly image he recognises. But, over time, most of them fade into invisibility. Ok. But I know I would only do justice to this chapter if I were to re-read it all, and I’m not going to do that.

1914 – Treasure is as carefully wrought as Stitches is free-form. It’s a chapter from the memoir of a retired civil servant and it is self-conscious, measured, full of the careful little metaphors that people like him would use. He’s an outsider, back from the life of a dutiful expat in India, and still grieving for the wife who died of dysentery only months before their long-anticipated return to an England he knows doesn’t really exist. So, what can Adam Thorpe bring to the familiar territory of the long, hot summer of 1914?

First, he starts it in the cold, damp winter and focuses on what the village, familiar to us, looks like to someone in the early 20th Century. The Squire is a mess, relying on the old hierarchies and almost literally stamping with rage when an employee dares to do something he disagrees with. Meanwhile the labouring classes take provincialism to a level he finds hard to believe in England. But just as War seems imminent, he – or Adam Thorpe – decides to bring in another element. The Squire decides to excavate the barrow above the village, and he dragoons his acquaintances and some employees into his ‘team’. (I don’t know if the barrow is the Devil’s Knob – it has a different name now.) The writer is one of these, and lets us know that the refusal of one man to comply becomes a bone of contention. The under-gardener doesn’t like the idea of disturbing anybody’s final resting-place, and the writer describes how he had thought of this as typical rustic superstition.

But hang on. Later, when War is declared, the big recruitment drive in the village becomes a set-piece confrontation. The outdoor public meeting, attended by everybody, goes badly until the Squire’s inspired decision to pull out his great-grandfather’s sabre from Waterloo. It electrifies the crowd, and mention of the number of volunteers raised by the rival village does the trick: 32 men volunteer on the spot, all the able-bodied men in the village. (How plausible is this? Did it ever really happen like that? No matter.) One man doesn’t, the same under-gardener who would rather ‘bide at ‘ome.’ He never does volunteer, although some of the Squire’s employees, the ones he had carefully kept away from the recruitment meeting, volunteer one by one after one of the village men is ‘blown apart by an artillery shell’ near Ypres. Soon ‘Bidatome’ becomes the man’s nickname, and he never seems to care. And, meanwhile, the barrow yields a skeleton, a funeral jar and a few paltry pieces of Anglo-Saxon metalwork. All this has taken place fourteen years previously – the memoir is being written in 1928 – and the writer can’t resist pointing up a final little irony. As he counts the spokes on the wheel of the cart slowly carrying the skeleton down the hill, he reaches twelve – the number of those original recruits killed in action.

Adam Thorpe pastiches a different style in 1953 – Wing. If you thought things were pinched in 1650, that’s nothing to 1953. The transcript of a radio broadcast that opens the chapter is a jokey anecdote about the long-anticipated end of rationing, and the subsequent diary entries each begin with references to the spam and luncheon meat the writer has had for dinner. With the aches and pains of the hypochondriac and her old-maid mind-set she sounds older than her 42 years, a product of the times Thorpe is satirising. She is the doting secretary of a minor artist who has made his money through carefully crafted cartoons in magazines like Punch. He’s a self-centred womaniser whose ego she is happy to massage with praise of the work she seems to genuinely admire. But how would she know?

The cartoonist – he hates that word, so the secretary does as well – has been writing a memoir for years, and has a special project. On Coronation Day he is going to bury a huge time capsule in his garden, full of things donated by the village and crowned with the only copy of his memoir and drawings nobody alive will ever see. The trajectory of the chapter, as self-consciously crafted (by Adam Thorpe, I mean) as Treasure, is the writer’s growing realisation that she means nothing to the man she has worked for since her twenties. In the chapters of his memoir covering those years she waits for references to important little moments they have shared, ideas she has given him. Hah. She rates the occasional mention as ‘my secretary’ and no more. Her resentment is added to what she is already feeling about the local teacher he has been having noisy sex with upstairs, and she decides to take her revenge. There is to be a bonfire on the hill, and she is going to take the suitcase of typescript out of the time capsule, as yet unburied, and burn it.

Implausible? Of course. But Thorpe has chosen to write in the style of a particular comic genre in which the reader swallows any doubts – that such an egomaniac would bury his story, that there would be so many happy coincidences – because we want to see if the worm will turn. To make sure she does, Thorpe adds a final insult. She had one day gone into the semi-derelict Hall looking for something and, discovering a bed that seemed to have somebody in it, had left in a hurry. This turns into a risqué drawing that she finds among the pages of the memoir in which she is portrayed as the prissy old maid that she must seem to him. She takes the cases up to the bonfire and resigns next day.

But Thorpe doesn’t stick to the genre. It seems that this description of her final protest is written while she’s dosing up on proprietary medication and booze she’s smuggled from her boss’s room – ‘have another glass Violet’ – and it’s impossible to tell whether the last lines are verbatim reportage or wishful thinking. Hasty prose mutates into free verse on the page as Violet takes her leave:

‘I’m off tomorrow Mr B. Here’s your cocoa. You are a funny old stick Violet my dear / oh fuck off / Violet my dear? / Miss W. pulling him away / oh fuck off as Father wd not ever say no / oh fuck off / oh Violet’

5 October
Chapter 12 – to the end
Thorpe has allowed himself to become more and more satirical with each of the 20th Century chapters, and we think we know exactly where we are in 1988 – Here. In this transcript of a documentary appears, among many other voices, that of – spit – a property developer. He claims to be from an old family in the village, and I was racking my brains to remember where that surname had come up before. Thorpe reminds us before the end that – guess – the builder’s ancestor was the farmer who married the soldier’s wife in Chapter 1. Not only that. Like all the recent chapters, this one is very carefully plotted, and the connection is revealed when a skeleton is discovered, still clad in the surprisingly well-preserved leather uniform of Cromwell’s army. The murderer, of course, is named as the very same farmer.

It’s cleverer than that. The new, mainly upmarket housing development is not well-liked in the village, although Thorpe is as happy to satirise the objectors to it as the self-serving cronies of the builder himself. Among the objectors is one Adam Thorpe, seen in conversations alongside the widow of the cartoonist – he married the teacher in the end – and others. He decides to write a story based on the death of the soldier, and has it published in a local publication, The Wessex Nave. This is the very publication mentioned at the end of Chapter 1 – ‘Reprinted by kind permission of’ – and suddenly Thorpe has taken us somewhere else. We think we know every field and dwelling of this place, have seen it change over the centuries… except we don’t. Thorpe is reminding us what we’ve known from the start: there is no history, only different people’s versions of it. In his invented version he chose the builder’s surname merely because it is one of the oldest in the village. The property developer doesn’t believe it any more than the reader – and, perhaps needless to say, The Wessex Nave is as fictional as the rest.

The discovery of the skeleton, and other publicity about curses and ghosts in the area where the development has been built contribute to the failure, for now, of the project. By the end, only half the houses are sold and the last we see of the builder is as his car disappears over the horizon.

And that’s it. I’d love to write more about this novel – 5,000-odd words seems hardly enough, somehow – but not just now. Perhaps when I’ve had some more time to think about it.


1 Response to Ulverton – Adam Thorpe

  1. Michael5000 says:

    Thanks for your terrific summary of a terrific novel. It made an excellent “debrief” read to help me tie all of the pieces of the book together.

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