Arcadia by Iain Pears

It was the teenager rather than the adult in me that enjoyed this. Arcadia is a novel brimming with mischief, a kind of YA romp featuring stories within stories, time travel and alternative universes. As I understood it, the novel is like a dramatised archaeological dig in search of the beginning and the end of its own story.

It’s not going to be easy to summarise the plot premise but here we go: Professor Henry Lytten, a retired Oxford Don, nurtures the ambition to write a novel about a rural arcadia called Anterworld. He has compiled pages and pages of notes but never quite managed to forge his extensive notes into a story. Angela Meerson is a researcher in a dystopian future who has created a portal to parallel universes except it turns out to be a time machine. She travels back to the 20th century where she meets Henry and steals his ideas for Anterworld which she uses as a kind of prototype for her continuing quest to create a parallel universe. The portal is hidden in Henry’s basement. A young girl called Rosie accidentally enters the portal while looking for Henry’s missing cat and finds herself in Anterworld. Her arrival plays havoc with the elementary rules of causation previously existent. Meanwhile Angela’s employer sends a man into the machine to find Angela and arch villain Zoffany Oldmaster, who wishes to employ Angela’s discovery for his apocalyptic ends, is hunting for Angela’s daughter who is a renegade in the new society where emotion is forbidden.

The most fun part of the book is Anterworld where the storyteller is the most revered figure in society and the Story is what gives everyone’s lives order and meaning. Pears has lots of fun here weaving in literary references, most notably Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the frivolous but wise tone of which he employs throughout his depiction of this rural feudal world.

The prose is simplistic as is the depiction of relationships. There’s no psychology, no insights into what makes people tick. The descriptive writing is very generic, almost lazy. Detail is often ignored or sketched in with a single brushstroke. All Pears’ creative energy is channelled into the design of this book, which is very clever. You could say the most fundamental art of the storyteller is to work out where a story begins and where it ends. Pears ingeniously keeps us guessing where his story begins and ends until the last chapter. arcadia

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