First Light by Peter Ackroyd

IMG_1567 It is scarcely credible that the same hand wrote both this and The Plato Papers. But then Peter Ackroyd publishes too much, and quality control is an ongoing problem these days. It wasn’t back in 1989 when this great piece of thought-provoking English whimsy was published and he was in the midst of a hot streak that brought forth Chatterton and Hawksmoor, for which respect is due. So, First Light: there is an archaeological dig going on in Dorset, which is turning up some findings which seem to contradict one another. Meanwhile, at the local observatory, Damian Clark is losing his grip on reality (Ackroyd always likes to have at least one character who is away with the fairies) as signals from a distant star stoke his confusion. The earth and the stars are in alignment, and opposed, one and the same, constantly, forever, and we carry on as insignificant as before. There’s a bit of music hall (again, Ackroyd is never far from the stage, in this case a retired ‘low comedian’, Joey Hanover, looking for his roots), and all of it is brought out to hammer home the point that everyone is unsure of their place in the world – of their place in the universe, indeed. Existential questions are posed – about history, the linearity of time, our present, what the future may bring, the function of myths, our relationship to the forces which shape everything: good, if you like that kind of thing. The characters are authentically drawn – that is, they do not speak in a way that anyone outside Ackroydworld ever speaks, but they are authentic Ackroyd and this is his patch. Evangeline Tupper, down from London, is cheerily insulting to the bumpkins (‘You and your country lore. It is too staggering’) while the Mints could more or less have been more or less lifted straight from Dickens – walk-on parts when Our Mutual Friend strays into the country, perhaps. Mark Clare, leading the dig, finds things turning a bit The Wicker Man. This is the work of a distinctive, very English, sometimes brilliant author. It’s probably a bit much to hope that there is much more like it from him yet to come.

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