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Hear the Voice of the Dead – Ulverton by Adam Thorpe

Ulverton by Adam Thorpe

Ulverton is a novel composed of a dozen short stories bound together by the history of the fictional village Ulverton. The stories are ordered chronologically, from 1650 to 1988, and these stories are told in different styles and different points of view. It’s a pastiche made of a traditional short story, a sermon, a journal, a series of literate letters, a series of illiterate letters, a bar story, a set of photographic plates, a one-way conversation, and a movie script. Some characters are mentioned from story to story, particularly the characters in the older stories, but these characters are less important than the place itself because Ulverton is the main character of the novel.

I was merely looking for a good translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary when I stumbled upon an article that tells of Adam Thorpe’s new rendition of the said novel despite the recent one that Lydia Davis did. In that article is also the news of the recent inclusion of Thorpe’s first novel, Ulverton, in the illustrious Vintage Classics. This made me wonder because how could a novel that is younger than me become a classic only after twenty years. My curiosity was piqued further with the rare but magnificent reviews that I read, so I ordered a copy online.

I’ve read something that is similar to the novel’s form and structure, and something that presents us with a connected disconnectedness. But here is something that tells us the story and the character of a village. From Ulverton to Ulver to Ulverdon to Ulvoton to Ullverton to Vulverton and back to Ulverton, we read of its vaguely remembered folktales, its farming techniques, its part in the industrial revolution, its barns and brooks and idyllic landscape, its grand sweep of history dating back to the 17th century, and its persistence to stay alive in the face of forces that threaten to change it.

But no one spoke, that was true. It was like they were listening for the right way, like in church over the rustle of skirts and  a child’s coughing and the babies. Listening for the Word that would tell them the right way. As I was listening with the wood of the shutter dark with soot against my cheek. And I think now that over the cold and the wind came the voice that told them, but it was not God’s voice, and Gabby never heard.

Reading through the stories, one will realize that people view historical events differently. The loneliness of an adulteress in the 17th century is remembered as the mark of a witch in the succeeding century. That unrecorded piece of event in this village haunts the town like a gust of wind filled with whispers that resonate the sadness of the woman. The story of this woman pervade some of the stories, and though she left an indelible mark that is not quite the truth, it speaks volumes about how our actions can affect people and their perceptions at a given stretch of time.

That our piety is no longer snug with companions.
That we are spaced so, like scattered candles in the dark.
That we are cold.

The novel features stories about the radical lower classes and the elite upper classes, and it is admirable how Thorpe captures the voices of the people from different classes, considering that the stories have to match the period of time when each of them occurred. One may even feel that this may have been written by a number of writers because all stories barely have a trace of Thorpe. That means some of them need a lot of work to be understood, particularly one chapter that is 20 pages of streaming consciousness in the style of Molly’s soliloquy, the last chapter of Ulysses by James Joyce, which Thorpe admitted to imitate. And according to Thorpe, what is reading if the reader doesn’t try to do a little work?

I hardly understood that chapter, and when I finally got over it and warded off a threatening headache, I proceeded to the next chapter only to feel a sense of jagged transition, which I found weird because the stories do not have a direct relationship with each other in terms of plot. And yet, why did I feel that way?

It’s because the connections are sublime. Perhaps this is what Hilary Mantel means when she says that reading this is like hearing the voice of the dead. One doesn’t need to connect the dots when reading the novel, although one cannot help from ooh-ing and aah-ing when some connections are made. These overt connections are actually the weaker ones because the stronger ones are so subtle that they are left unsaid. They can only be sensed through the kind of reading where the reader lets the words sink in without trying so hard at instantly decoding them. The understanding will not come immediately, but it will come soon.

[Those ribbons looked so tattered and pale and torn it was sad, like he had pulled out his own heart. Even his fierceness was not that of love but, as I think, of anguish.]

In the first nonpastiche story, a soldier comes home with ribbons and whatnot for his wife. In the last story, land developers unearth a skeleton with ribbons and whatnot held close to the sternum by what remains of the hand. If that just made you sigh, read this. But there’s more to this skeleton than that. Just read it to find out.

Dates Read: April 1 to 18, 2013

No. of Pages: 415

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


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