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3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
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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.
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on 19 January 2000
This book kept me reading through its various changes of voice. After a slighter initial story the book quickly picks up with its different tones and experiences. Particularly striking are narratives in the voice of the Book of Common Prayer and from the year 1887. This book is worth savouring and revisiting. It presents a highly moral collection of stories, with a vivid sense of humour and grasp of thought processes. It is fascinating to listen to people deluding themselves about their motives. I would advise you to read it.
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on 14 November 2000
This is a breathtaking book which traces the history of the fictitious English village of Ulverton via a series of short stories. It gives a real sense of how the present is the sum of all things past, and the way in which real events can be distorted and misinterpreted by history. This is one of those very few books that really can change the way you look at life - I read it seven years ago, and the insights gained are as fresh now as they were then.
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on 19 June 2008
This book is with me for the rest of my life. I drive past a village (any village) and I see a church tower or a beautiful field, an old man, a war memorial, or a ramshackle pub and up pops 'Ulverton'. This is rural Britain in focus. It opens minds to what has been, what is and what will (or may) be. We are living history, we are responsible for what happens next. Ulverton didn't teach me that but it reminded me so strongly that my life is influenced, my actions are influenced and my eyes are more open than they were before I read the tales.

A series of simple, yet compelling tales with 50 year gaps in between. Based in the same small village. Tales of small lives that live on in many different ways. Starting with the Civil War ending with modern day - so much has changed and yet so little.

There is that unpunctuated 'Adam Thorpe' chapter and hard to read - it's OK not to read it! I lost little of the power of the book by skipping it.
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on 25 August 2011
I have just finished rereading Ulverton. The first reading was about ten years ago, and several of the episodes, and several sharp images, had stuck in my mind since then, although, interestingly, several of them I had forgotten completely.

This is not a collection of short stories : to say that gives a completely wrong impression of this book. It is a generic whole, riveted together by people from the same families living through 3 centuries, 1650 - 1988 in the same location, the village of Ulverton. Thus names and places traverse the years with the differences you would expect - one of the elms of 5 Elms Farm falls, a wooden gate and a solid wooden table outlive their makers by far.

However, initially, people knew who made these artefacts and tell each other from generation to generation, albeit with small slips creeping in; also, originally, people knew the real stories transforming them little by little into country lore. Towards the end, I suppose inevitably, the new (horrible?) people in the last chapters, despite roots in the village, throw out the same artefacts, burning and destroying them, to make way for the new age.

This 'progress' leads not forwards but to ruin.

Some of the chapters are unbearably moving; Adam Thorpe's skill is to let them stand without pathos, drama or sentiment. Life was harder in the past but the Ulvertonians just got on with it. From the point of view of the writing, the book is an extraordinary tour de force of both research and imagination. Thorpe's command of the language is nothing short of astonishing. Each chapter has its own voice appropriate to the social station of the character and in their own ways, the rich people's lives were just as hard as the poor people's. Two of chapters (Ch 5 "Dissection" 1775 and Ch 9 "Stitches" 1887) I needed to read again and again to get to grips with the language. I disagree with another reviewer who appears to have skipped at least Chapter 9 - without it a whole block of folk memory is missing. This reader needed to persevere!

I love the way characters appear in successive stories either in person (50 years on) or in older folks' memory. So although as the reader you have to learn the voices of each new chapter's characters, the thread of connection is always there for you to find, appreciate and feel at home with.

To finish, I will read this book again in about ten years and experience once more the detective thrill of ferreting out ordinary people's lives ---- the true making of history.

BRAVO - a quite outstanding literary achievement.
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on 12 September 2007
There are so many different layers and strands of this dense book to enjoy. The language is marvellously evocative, although I really had to concentrate to get the full meaning and subtlety, I really loved the old fashioned language, it seemed so real. I have no idea if it actually was real old useage but it certainly felt like it.

Each chapter is a story in itself, and yet has connections to previous stories of maybe fifty years previously. Previous history is often wrongly interpreted by characters in later stories in quite clever ways. There is a fantastic sense of place, which is interesting to follow through history. I did feel like I got under the skin of some of the characters, and various scenes have really stuck with me.

I would also recommend "Kilvert's Diary" which is the real diary of a friendly country priest some time ago, for getting the feel of real lives past. (As Ulverton is a fictional book you can see how real it feels!)
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on 10 February 2001
The passing of generations in rural England was rooted in the soil and a sense of belonging. It is sad that we have lost that now. It is sad that the living of a life is so important at the time and yet that life is so quickly forgotten when it is over. The voices of the dead might tell of work and hunger or murder and angels but also of the times as they changed and through simple lives something might run like a thread. Adam Thorpe picks the threads and sheds some light and mystery. Consider the bricks and stone of the houses of the medieval village of Snap,Wiltshire, where for centuries childrens' voices would sing ring-a-roses but which were abandoned this century and are now buried in earth.
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on 18 February 2013
I found out about this extraordinary book more or less by accident, and can't understand why it's not better known, and its author not more famous. The poetic mastery of language and volatility of imagination are underpinned by a deep feeling for nature and what seems to be (I'm not really qualified to judge) a comprehensive knowledge of traditional agricultural techniques, lore, and vocabulary. Besides his Hardyesque craft in weaving poignant rustic tragedy (via sometimes near-impenetrable dialect), Thorpe also shows the subtle and allusive skill of a Richardson in his use of the epistolary form. Most definitely a masterpiece.
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on 5 June 2003
I've read this 3 times so far and notice something new each time. The stories are beautifully interlinked and notice how in the last story someone revenges his ancestor. I like the cameo appearence by the author too.
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on 21 May 2009
What a breath of fresh air this book is. I have read it three times in as many years and each time it has brought me something new.
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