10 August 2016

The Countenance Divine

Image from www.hodder.co.uk
The Countenance Divine
Michael Hughes
John Murray, 11 August 2016
HB, 304pp

In 1999 a programmer is trying to fix the millennium bug, but can't shake the sense he's been chosen for something.

In 1888 five women are brutally murdered in the East End by a troubled young man in thrall to a mysterious master.

In 1777 an apprentice engraver called William Blake has a defining spiritual experience; thirteen years later this vision returns.

And in 1666 poet and revolutionary John Milton completes the epic for which he will be remembered centuries later.

But where does the feeling come from that the world is about to end?

This is a complex and many layered first novel from Michael Hughes. It made me think of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum and Peter Ackroyd's occult London novels such as The House of Doctor Dee and Hawksmoor - but with an extra depth of human sympathy.

The story takes place in and between four different times. In 1666, John Milton is living uneasily under the Restoration, already blind, and trying to complete his visionary Paradise Lost. He enlists the help of Thomas Allgood as his secretary. Allgood narrates what happens next - as well his earlier personal history - via a set of notebooks which turn up in various places throughout the other narratives. To my (non expert!) eye, Hughes has captured the cadences of 17th century English very well - as well as the outlook of a man born Roman Catholic, part of a minority living precariously in a hostile environment, who later converts to a Protestant. The tension in Allgood's spirituality underlies much of what happens and his conversations and debates with Milton - also, of course, out of favour by 1666 - drew me into the narrative: don't be put off by the old fashioned cast to this part of the story, the issues explored are current and the characters touchingly and convincingly portrayed.

The second time period is the 18th century, where in 1777 William Blake (best known now for "Jerusalem" but a poet, artist and visionary with a much greater breadth of achievement) had a spiritual experience. This is renewed in 1790. (Hughes plays a little bit with his timings here in a book which is supposed to be based on recurrences every 111 years but I think he can be forgiven that.)

Blake was for me the most interesting of the protagonists. While Allgood is desperate and acting for pay and Milton resigned from influencing anything and simply wanting to complete his poem (and be remembered) Blake is truly driven. As his part of the story intersects the others we are reminded of the truly radical (and weird) inspiration behind what is now seen a very tame and Hovis-tinged English past. Blake is brought vividly to life and speaks to us, and for that Hughes deserves high praise.

The third of the book's timezones (they're not separate neat sections, they overlap and are nested within each other) is less ecstatic, much nastier: the (semi literate) writings of a nameless individual in 1888 who, we quickly learn, is Jack the Ripper. There are some vivid descriptions of the Ripper murders - be warned this is very strong material indeed, and again Hughes convincingly inhabits the voice of his character, which only adds to the reader's unease. (Hughes is aware of the general fascination with the Ripper murders and the focus on the killer, not on the women he killed - it's mentioned a number of times in the story - and one thing he does do is name Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly and portray them as real people not just victims).

This thread in the book, which is the briefest (for which I was thankful - it's strong stuff!) is I think the real key to what's going on, the hinge between the "old" and the "new" sections and it also to embody an idea - which is where the similarity with Ackroyd arises - of affecting both the past and the future through sacrifice.

In contrast,  the final time period (1999, where a team of programmers are working to address the Millennium Bug) which actually opens the book is easier to engage with, beginning as a more conventional story, focused on Chris and Lucy, both of whom are misfits. The story is told in 100 numbered parts, labelled 01, 02, 03... all the way up to 99 and then reverting to 00, in tribute to the Bug itself. Hughes adopts a very flat style for this part and emphasises Chris social awkwardness: I wasn't sure whether there was meant to be an implication that Chris might be Asperger's or somewhere on the autistic spectrum, but regardless of that it's a bit of a forlorn love story between him and chain smoking goth Lucy. That results in a bit of will-they, won't-they and makes the two characters much more approachable and sympathetic than anyone else in the book.

In the end however, the modernity of this part is very much on the surface with the same preoccupations as the other sections - who or what (God or Devil) governs the world, whether they can be known or trusted, millenarianism, how far our destiny is given (that Bug!) and how far we can shape it or even make it (Chris tells Lucy how he used to believe he was Jesus and the book points out several times that even Jesus didn't know at first that he was Jesus). And the antics of Milton, Allgood, the young Ripper and of Blake prove intimately bound with the lives of Chris and Lucy.

In all this is an exhilarating, compelling novel. It does require a bit of commitment. The different styles are very different and you need to pay close attention, but the book is never less than compulsive. My only criticism - and it is a slight one - is that a great deal is actually explained in the final few pages that might have been left unsaid. But to counterbalance that some mysteries remain, and you can't - in my view - rely on what you're told anyway: prophesy is, in the end, not a science.

This is an excellent first novel, and I'm really looking forward to reading more of Hughes's work.

No comments:

Post a Comment