This review originally appeared in the Guardian.
Since A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which won the 1990 Booker Prize, we have seen a recurrent vogue for novels in which contemporary and historical narratives are interleaved. It is a device that has been put to many uses, but it has proved especially attractive to writers who, like Byatt, are given to flourishes of erudition and who are drawn to its potential for formal experimentation. One manifestation of this has been a trend towards increasing complexity, leading to the emergence of what might be termed the ‘novel of ingenuity’, whose proliferating timelines (as in the recent fiction of David Mitchell) provide the readiest index of its ambitions.
The Countenance Divine contents itself with four, interweaving a near-contemporary narrative with three distinct historical strands. In 1999, introverted computer programmer Chris Davidson is shoring up rickety software against the ‘Millennium Bug’, a doom that now appears impossibly quaint. It is a humdrum existence, described in an oddly affectless tone: ‘Chris liked his job. It was hard work and the hours were long, but he was very good at it.’
But Chris, we quickly realise, is not quite what he seems. On a whim, he buys a strange wooden puzzle from a market trader. As he tinkers with this ‘Practical Rebus’, he is plagued by strange thoughts: that he has been alive for hundreds of years; that the city is on fire; that he has been chosen for some special purpose.
At the office, Chris keeps up appearances. As the millennium looms and fears of economic and civil chaos grow, he beavers away on lines of neglected computer code. His inner life, however, is in turmoil, and his visions have taken a frankly apocalyptic turn: ‘The world was about to end, and it was all his fault.’
Before it can, though, we find ourselves in the London of 1888, amid the livid horrors of the Whitechapel murders. Taking the infamous ‘From hell’ letter as his starting point, Hughes presents a cache of imagined correspondence by the same hand, in which the putative Ripper gives his account of the remaining murders and alludes, in darkly cryptic terms, to his instructions from a ‘Mr Blake’ (who has, incidentally, made him a gift of a now-familiar ‘puzzle toy’).
This sequence, though disturbing, is a remarkable feat of ventriloquism. Hughes (who has worked for many years as an actor) has an exquisite ear for diction, and for all the dismal savagery of the acts his Ripper recounts, it is the coarse verisimilitude of his verbal tics that makes him truly terrifying. ‘Ile set you down on the ground,’ he writes, ‘nise and gentle.’
The Ripper’s ‘Mr Blake’, it transpires, is none other than William Blake. We encounter him in 1790, as he laboriously engraves his own tiny print run of Songs of Innocence and of Experience (whose formative visions, to preserve his satisfying chronological schema, Hughes locates in 1777). Blake, too, is brought to life with extraordinary assurance. We are shown not only the fervent visionary, but also the playful Dissenter and, less familiarly, the mercurial but tender husband.
Hughes has done his textual scholarship too, though he stitches it into his narrative without undue showiness. Blake’s visions, for instance, are announced by ‘a hot, gnawing chatter in his toe’, a detail that echoes his epic poem, Milton, in which the spirit of that revered poet enters Blake’s body by way of his foot. Similarly, when the remains of Milton are disinterred (and here, again, Hughes hinges his tale on historical events), Blake secures possession of one of his ribs, fashioning from it a homunculus in which Milton is, rather wearily, reanimated. This is every bit as outlandish as it sounds, yet it is, to be fair, a thoroughly Blakean outlandishness (homunculi were apt to appear in his engravings), and such are the verve and conviction of Hughes’ vision that we accept it with hardly a raised eyebrow.
In 1666, meanwhile, a blind and disconsolate Milton is racing against time to see his great epic published. Though he is no longer in immediate danger, the Restoration has left him with few friends. Unlike Blake, the convictions of his youth have deserted him, and his dream of an English New Jerusalem is in ruins. His prophecies have not been forgotten, however, and those who cling to them are now scheming against him. In the ashes of the Great Fire of London, we begin to glimpse the grand design that is unfolding across the centuries.
All of this may sound rather daunting; this is, it must be said, an intricate and densely allusive novel. Yet for all the seriousness of its meditations on literary heritage and millenarian theology, The Countenance Divine is never less than superbly stimulating. It is a debut of high ambition that marks the arrival of a considerable talent.