'A-hind of hill, ways off to sun-set-down, is sky come like as fire, and walk I up in way of this, all hard of breath, where is grass colding on I’s feet and wetting they.'
It's a brave thing to begin your debut novel in the first-person voice of a child with developmental issues. A child that cannot distinguish dreams from reality; that cannot understand how to lie; that is incapable of looking after himself. It's a braver thing too when that's not the focus of the novel.
Alan Moore is often mentioned as one of the most highly regarded British writers working today and yet this remains his only novel. Like Neil Gaiman, he had worked almost exclusively as a comic-book writer until 1996. Both released their debut novels in that year (Neverwhere for Gaiman - Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch doesn't count here since it was co-authored with Terry Pratchett and it was Pratchett that did most of the writing) but whereas Gaiman grew a reputation as a Fantasy novelist, this remains Moore's only novel to date.
Moore's both a proud Englishman and a keen occultist so it should be no surprise that both of those influences weigh heavily on this text. His subject is his home town, Northampton, and his metaphor is fire. As a metaphor, it's a useful one, with many associations - bright, warming, comforting, Signal, destructive, transformative. Here, it's all of those things - sometimes at the same time. Mostly though, it's the latter; Moore paints a dynamic landscape, always changing: the coming of agriculture, of metals, of Romans, Vikings, Normans... all have their place in Moore's narrative.
Where authors such as Edward Rutherfurd emphasise the continuity of a place in their historical works by following different generations of the same family, often in the middle of sweeping epochs, Moore structures his tale by always casting different, unrelated, individuals in every chapter and each personal story often occurs at the time of wider social change (the first chapters take the structure of the changes listed above). A sense of more gradual change, happening alongside the more obvious but superficial changes already mentioned is hinted at by the developing language used in each chapter. With each written from the first-person perspective of a different character, always in the present tense, the author builds from the Mesolithic simpleton quoted at the beginning of this review, in the first chapter, through successive generations of changing language - words change, develop, some disappear and others appear. You sense that the words are not just a means for expressing ideas but things which have a life of their own - separate from the people and inhabiting their own time-scale.
The characters and their stories re-appear in the tales of others. This might be why some GoodReads users have classified the book as fantasy, for my own part though, I prefer to see the book as straight historical fiction: the reappearance of characters and their happenings occur only in dreams and at times of madness and the characters who see them perceive them only in this context. That seems reasonable to me; it's clearly a manifestation of Moore's beliefs in the occult (hinted at more blatantly in a chapter featuring John Dee as an off-screen presence) but it's not fantastical per se. We know that they are ancient people and events - the protagonists do not and do not try to interpret them in this way. They're just dreams. The only other fantastic element is the monologue of the dead but, again, there is no interaction between the dead and the living - so in this sense it may be seen as the same situation reversed.
These lives (from the historic period onwards, all protagonists and events, save authorly embellishment, did occur), these tales, are points, glittering and flowing as they are pulled around and down through a vortex. Like in Cloud Atlas that structure is sign-posted by the author, whereas that felt patronising though, here I felt it merely honest: there was nothing of the smug reveal about it but rather the smile of a friend as he says 'you've caught me'. Why? Because of what lies at the heart of the vortex.
'Comitted to a present-day first-person narrative, there seems no other option save a personal appearance, which in turn demands a strictly documentary approach'
Such an ending could easily be egotistical but instead it's deftly handled and a perfect fit. As the author seeks inspiration to finish his book we pound the streets of Northampton with him - and we know it. The town comes alive for us both as it is and as it has been. Ultimately though, this final reveal is shown as the curtain, for this novel isn't about Northampton or even England - the star of the show isn't even the characters, it's history. History, as Moore says in this chapter, burns hot.
Gaiman wrote an introduction in this edition in which he states that this final chapter is already the perfect introduction to the book and I can see his point - the chapters could be read in almost any order but why go against the hot tide of history?(less)
Twenty years. I've been reading Bernard Cornwell's novels for more than twenty years. In that time I couldn't have done anything other than failed to...moreTwenty years. I've been reading Bernard Cornwell's novels for more than twenty years. In that time I couldn't have done anything other than failed to notice the pattern in his historical fiction: losing skirmish, small victory, big battle. The Warrior Chronicles have been up there with the best of his work, for me, and so obviously I was delighted when I heard that the series was being extended from the originally planned seven volumes to eight.
Now, though, I wonder at that decision. This felt a lot like padding.(less)