Review: Arcadia by Iain Pears

Genre: Literary/spec. fic.

In 1960s Oxford, former WWII spy-turned-university-professor, Henry Lytten spends his evenings making notes for a fantasy novel set in the Tolkienesque realm of Anterwold.

Fifteen-year-old Rosie, who looks after Henry’s cat, spends much of her free time hanging about at Henry’s and is rather shocked to discover an opening into Anterwold in Henry’s cellar.

In the distant future, psychomathematician, Angela Meerson, has invented a kind of time machine that’s got her in a bit of hot water, and she’s forced to transport herself back to the twentieth century where she befriends Henry. She’s very much enjoying her life in hiding, but is fairly certain she can’t evade her colleagues forever.

Meanwhile, the people of Anterwold are witnessing strange visitations and otherworldly phenomena, and the ancient prophecies respectable scholars have long regarded as nonsense appear to be coming true.

Arcadia is a sweeping dystopian tale that seamlessly blends fantasy and science fiction to investigate what’s required to make and maintain a world.

It’s a great book. Extraordinarily clever. The plot draws heavily from Shakespeare, with the characters making farcical attempts to keep Anterwold a secret, only for more and more of them to stumble from their various realities into its enchanted woods, where a hilarious chaos of mistaken identities and confusion ensues.

Anterwold itself is a complex space. For simplicity’s sake, and in order not to give too much away, it’s easiest to understand it as the world Henry is building for his book. He’s a big Tolkien fan, and so Anterwold borrows its aesthetic from Middle Earth. But Henry’s vision is incomplete. He hasn’t yet decided how certain key events will play out, and the world lacks detail. As such, it deliberately reads like a watered down Middle Earth. Indeed, it’s only able to exist by not being as stable as Tolkien’s fantasy (there’s a scene where Angela uses her machine to briefly open a door into Middle Earth, but it quickly collapses).

As a writer, I can relate to the difficulties of world building, the temptation to borrow from those who’ve gone before. It’s the shitty first draft. We’ve all been there. And it’s funny to read about characters wandering around this half-formed space, begging the author to finish his work. But it’s also dull. Pears devotes considerable space to giving his reader a tour of Anterwold by following a young boy, Jay, who leaves his small farming village to become an apprentice scholar and storyteller. These sections read like the first draft of a fantasy novel in which the author hasn’t fully fleshed out the world or figured out where the story is going. It’s somewhat tedious.

It’s made more tedious by the fact that Henry’s world is incredibly self-indulgent: the most important people in Anterwold are scholars who study the Story, which is basically the mythology Henry is in the process of inventing.

Arcadia‘s plot moves slowly. It has to. The thesis, or thought experiment, behind the story is complicated. Angela explains it better than I can:

All causes are balanced by consequences, and each is merely a different form of the other. They are interchangeable, like energy and matter. What I had done by creating Anterwold [her machine opens the doorway] was not just the cause of history changing; it was the consequence of it as well.

There is no difference between cause and effect. That is an illusion created by belief in time. If I drop a cup, the cup breaks. The dropping is the cause, the breaking is the effect, because one happens after the other. Remove the notion of time and that no longer works. Each is the required condition for the other to take place. As the cup breaks, I am required to drop it. It’s like the pair of scales again, where conditions in one pan determine the state of the other one.

Ordinarily, it is relatively simple to calculate such things as there is only one line of existence. However, my experiment had created another…

It necessarily takes Pears some time to set up his various realities the relationship between them. Each ‘reality’—1960s Oxford, the future in which Angela invents her machine and Anterwold—not only influences the other, but each hosts several subplots. It’s fascinating to watch the interplay between these realities, and utter genius on Pears. But, if it takes Pears a long time to set it up, it takes him even longer to tie everything together in the end.

Overall, I found Arcadia very… academic. It’s the kind of book I could write dozens of essays on and have a fabulous time analysing the poetics and mechanics. But while it engaged my brain, it didn’t touch my heart. I’m not a sap. I love smart books with complex structures and themes. I enjoy stories that rework other stories in innovative ways—stories that test the limits of genre and invite the reader to question their understanding of ‘story’. But it has to be more than a beautiful mechanism. I have to feel something. While Pears’ characters are likeable—Rosie, in particular, is quite the charmer—the story’s self-awareness kept me from investing in what happened to them and fully immersing myself in their world(s).

See Arcadia on Goodreads and purchase through AmazonBook Depository and Kobo.

Thank you to Knopf for providing a copy of Arcadia in exchange for an honest review.

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