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For want of a nail ...
on 5 March 2004
"Ulverton" must be the most remarkable first novel published in the U.K. for many long years, and certainly has a place on my all-time Top Ten. Like so much of Thorpe's work, it is about the crucial things never said, things never known that fall into the gap between real human lives and recorded history: the twelve linked stories which make up the novel read almost like "dead letters" never sent, from a succession of remarkable historical voices.
Structurally, the book is fascinating: this is Thorpe at his most thrillingly experimental (I do feel, after the equally fine "Still", he has lost his edge a little in his later work). This is a novel composed of a series of twelve short stories, which are mainly first-person accounts by a variety of motley characters from the sixteenth to the late twentieth century, all living in the vicinity of the fictional English village of Ulverton. The characters and events mentioned in each story recur unexpectedly in following stories, but time moves forwards forty or fifty years each chapter: this allows Thorpe to show us the gap between the historical perception of people and their true lives and motivations, with both irony and pathos.
Above all, Thorpe accurately captures the random, literally chaotic nature of history (the flap of a butterfly's wings, etc.) - as the nursery rhyme tells us, the want of a nail ultimately caused the loss of the battle, and the cover art here is wonderfully appropriate.
If this all sounds a bit dry, I should say that Thorpe has a remarkable gift for getting into his character's heads and capturing their very different voices, and he gives us a succession of remarkably moving, sometimes tragic tales. This is real living history, and a thrillingly original read.