When Christopher Bayliss abandons Rome, he returns to England determined to be cleansed forever of the contagion of religion. But his research into an obscure 18th-century poet, Richard Pelham, reintroduces into his life those same ghostly whispers and rumours he thought he'd silenced for good.
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In this sophisticated, complex and oddly moving novel, Alan Wall presents the reader with studies of two men: Christopher Bayliss, the present-day protagonist, and Richard Pelham, the 18th century poet and object of Bayliss's study. It is this double narrative, the second of which is refracted through the interpretative curiosity of Bayliss, that makes this novel such a subtle meditation on contemporary life, while at the same time augmenting the book's pace and rhythm. Wall's cleverly constructed work affords the pleasure of two interwoven stories that are both absorbing and compelling, as well as offering material for more profound reflection.
Christopher Bayliss is a man who has renounced his religious studies and abandoned his thesis, and we are witness to his defection from the world of the mind to the material pleasures of the business world. But Bayliss, like many of the characters in the contemporary part of the book, is seen to have withdrawn from any real engagement with the world, and with life. His lover, Alice, a gifted painter, is almost somnambulistic in her passivity, but nevertheless discerns in Bayliss a deep disengagement with life. She at least has her art; he in turn has drawn back from almost all avenues of self- definition. Richard Pelham, on the other hand, is revealed as man almost too sensitised to the world around him, to the point of putative insanity--and it is between these two poles of engagement and withdrawal that the book oscillates, carefully counterpointing a subtext that explores the mythologies of artistic genius, responses to mental instability and the ways in which people direct or succumb to their lives.
Wall deploys subtle shifts in stylistic register between the two narratives to good effect. The material of the two lives is echoed in the prose used to recount them; what results is a work that combines literary complexity and narrative drive without sacrificing either. --Burhan Tufail
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