Thursday, January 28, 2016

Arcadia by Iain Pears

Publisher description: In 1960s Oxford, Professor Henry Lytten is attempting to write a fantasy novel that forgoes the magic of his predecessors, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. He finds an unlikely confidante in his quick-witted, inquisitive young neighbor Rosie. One day, while chasing Lytten’s cat, Rosie encounters a doorway in his cellar. She steps through and finds herself in an idyllic, pastoral land where Storytellers are revered above all others. There she meets a young man who is about to embark on a quest of his own—and may be the one chance Rosie has of returning home. These breathtaking adventures ultimately intertwine with the story of an eccentric psychomathematician whose breakthrough discovery will affect all of these different lives and worlds. Dazzlingly inventive and deeply satisfying, Arcadia tests the boundaries of storytelling and asks: If the past can change the future, then might the future also indelibly alter the past?

I really enjoyed reading Arcadia by Iain Pears. So many things to love! An Oxford don, a cat named Professor Jenkins, a psychomathematician, time travel, the Isle of Mull, intelligent and resourceful strong female  characters (including one who is middle-aged) that did not diminish the intelligent and resourceful strong male characters. All wrapped up in a fantasy wrapper.

There are three settings. A pastoral society of harvesters and students who follow the Story, an ancient narrative that guides their lives. Oxford, England, early 1960. And a grim dystopian future of rigid rules and classes, focused mostly on the Isle of Mull. There are main characters in each reality, and as the novel moves along the connections between them spool out.

I did find it odd that one character’s story, only one, is told in first person. I’d have to say my favorite setting in the book was the Oxford timeline, but as the story went on the lines between all three settings blurred considerably and they could no longer be definitively separated.

I’ve never read any Pears and I enjoyed his writing style. Here is a lovely passage told from the viewpoint of a character from the grim dystopian future who finds himself in 1960s suburban England: “After a while he came to a street. House with little gardens and trees, extraordinary flowers growing everywhere. More birds. Black ones, ones with red patches on their breasts, big fat grey ones. Once he jumped in fright. There was another wild animal on a wall, furry and looking decidedly dangerous. It examined him with pale green eyes and he stopped uncertainly until he noticed that everyone else ignored it as though it was the most normal thing in the world. …And the noise! People talking, different sorts of vehicle in chaotic movement. The wind in the trees, the birding singing. The smells too, floating everywhere, some sweet, most foul, alarming. There was no control to anything, no order, just random movements.” (pp. 35-36 of the ARC.) This really made me appreciate the ordinary sights and sounds of my own environment.

Pears won points from me with a couple of references, the first to Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. (I had gerbils named after characters in Arcadia at one time.) Pears notes that Sidney compensated for not being given a role in the government by Elizabeth I “by writing (or at least starting – he never quite finished anything) the greatest romance in the English language. Almost no one has even heard of it now, which is a pity, because if modern sensibilities are suspended – if you do not care about plot, action, events, morality, structure, or pace, if you are not bothered by absurd coincidence or unlikely motivations, if irrelevant digressions of immense length do not weary you – then his Arcadia has many fine qualities.” (p. 49 of the ARC.) Ha, love it!

The author wins even more points from me with this reference to C.S. Lewis’s Aslan: “The trouble was, of course, that Lewis operated in a simple world where, oddly, the supernatural was banished except for that bloody bore of a lion of his, perhaps the most humorless creation in all of literature. … Lewis tried to invent an entire world, and created only a middle-class English suburb with a few swords.” (pp. 46-47 of the ARC.) I actually said “YES!” out loud when I read that about the bloody bore of a lion.

This is a long book, and you have to become invested in the characters to keep reading.  The characters were interesting, and I enjoyed watching the multiple narratives converge. I liked the language and the literary references. I thought early on that I would probably not understand the ending, and that turned out to be the case. I need someone to explain it to me! But I thoroughly enjoyed the journey.

I read an advance reader copy of Arcadia. I understand there is some sort of app that lets you read the book’s chapters in different order, but I have no experience with that. I don’t care for the American cover; I think the U.K. cover captures the book much better.

Arcadia will be available at the Galesburg Public Library in mid-February.

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