A novel which defies an easy categorization or a review except to say that it is perhaps one of the most distinctive, idiosyncratic English novels of the 20th century, though I hesitate about it being described as one of the greatest.
The novel concerns itself with many of Powys' own preoccupations: his view of nature and man's place in it and his reactionary views against technology which presage green politics; the timelessness of places (neo-romantic); `magic' and the supernatural; paganism & religion; and the mythic. One of the novel's strengths is its insights into the psychological nature of human beings (suffering, compassion, the bitter-sweet pain that awareness brings) reminiscent of Dostoevsky, whom Powys greatly admired.
The book portrays Wolf's return to Dorset through his subjective conscious though not in a modernist style. Perhaps one of the novel's flaws is that Wolf's `mythology' and `life-illusion' are never really examined in great detail. We are told how Wolf views the world - in his own mind - as a battle between the forces of good and evil, so that he comes to view his employer, the aged aristocrat, Urquhart, as a sinister figure intent on causing him harm.
Solent's eventual loss of his 'life-illusion' (possibly freedom of spirit?) comes through his return to Dorset, where his late father, 'Old Truepenny', caused much scandal, even resulting in Wolf discovering a long-lost half-sister. In a sense, Wolf's father and mother conduct a battle in his soul between an almost pagan delight in the moment (the actual physical sensation of the here and now as opposed to any notion of the hereafter) and bourgeois respectability/sensibilities (and hypocrisy) as represented by his formidable mother. Though long since dead, Wolf's father casts a long shadow over this novel and, at times, he feels more alive than those who survive him - as one character says `better to be dead in death than dead in life'.
The novel depicts Wolf's own awareness of his complex nature, the combination of the sexual and the spiritual. In its depiction of relationships between men and women, it's reminiscent of Lawrence and of the lyricism of Hardy whilst avoiding his contrived melodrama.
It is basically the story of Wolf's complex relationships with two very different women, the child of nature, Gerda, and his intellectual and emotional soul-mate, the ethereal Christie with whom he shares a psychic connection. Many of the most beautiful passages occur early in the novel when Wolf courts and seduces Gerda (Yellow Bracken) and how she can mimic birdsong such as that of a blackbird. Like Wolf, Gerda, too, loses something precious during the novel and, like Powys himself with his disastrous first marriage, we are left feeling that Wolf has married a woman `alien to him in mind and spirit'.
Feminist critics of Powys might have valid points, certainly in his presentation of Christie (over emotional) and Gerda (in her beauty reminiscent of Rosamund Vincy), and it's interesting to note how Wolf's mother and Gerda burden his spirits through their obsessions with material objects (for Wolf's mother, a tea-shop similar probably to the one trashed by a drunken Withnail!). Powys disliked capitalism and it's interesting to note that many of the most peculiar, original characters in the book (the dark arch-cynic and poet Jason, Christie) are ones who write. Wolf, too, is a writer but one who wastes his talent to write Urquhart's scandalous history of Dorset. Jason is an odd character but his dark prophecies about Wolf being cuckolded do come true. In a sense, Urquhart does cause evil to Wolf but perhaps not in the overt way we imagine.
It's a subtle novel with Wolf's year in Dorset set against the seasons: in Spring, he falls in love with Gerda and life appears to offer much; in Summer, his relationship blossoms with Christie, his true love; Autumn brings emotional conflict; and Winter, a feeling of resignation (in a job as a teacher), that he has lost a vital part of himself. The return of spring perhaps brings a new awareness and acceptance of things, `to forget and enjoy' and a renewed energy to face life's problems - `to endure or escape' - but one can't help feeling that Wolf's marriage to Gerda faces further trials ahead.