I loved Arcadia; it’s my favorite book of 2016 (so far, anyway). It encompasses time travel, history/alt-history, romance, clever literary allusions, Cold War spy-craft, mind-bending reflections on the nature of time and the universe, and a grim vision of a totalitarian future. Successive chapters present several narratives that overlap and interweave in unexpected ways.
Eleven-year-old Jay—who lives in pastoral Anterwold—goes out to explore the countryside and glimpses a fairy in a cave; he bows to her, and she bows to him. Jay’s vision sets off a wave of fear in his village and, eventually, garners the attention of Anterwold’s greatest Storyteller, Henary, who taps Jay as his apprentice.
Anterwold is Henry Lytten’s creation; his attempt to imagine a more perfect society than those dreamed up by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. It’s 1960, and Henry—who’s a teaching fellow at Oxford—hasn’t gotten around to writing his full story yet. He records his ideas in a series of notebooks and occasionally shares them with Rosie, the fifteen-year-old neighbor who feeds his cat when he’s away and drops in for chat when he’s at home. “She was the only person to know about this imaginary creation of his, apart from his colleagues in the pub and his old friend Angela Meerson.”
One day, when the cat goes missing, Rosie searches Henry’s cellar, where she discovers a view of “open countryside bathed in brilliant light” behind a musty curtain. She’s at the entrance to a cave; she sees a boy in a rough tunic, who bows to her, and she bows to him. The coincidences grow more compelling when Angela Meerson appears as a “psychomathematician” at an industrial complex that’s clearly far into the future; she’s working on a machine that might be able to access potential alternative universes. Or is it really—as Angela suspects—a machine for time travel?
The delights of this remarkable book are only beginning, as Angela goes into hiding in the twentieth century and Rosie ventures into Anterwold.
It’s not a complete surprise that I loved Arcadia, because I’ve been an Iain Pears fan since I discovered his Jonathan Argyll art history/mystery series in the 90s (I wish he would write more, but fear he’s retired the series for good). I also liked the standalone An Instance of the Fingerpost, but I’ve missed a couple of others—including another history/mystery, Stone’s Fall—that I’ll have to add to my list.