A strange mix of the profound and the silly: Peter Ackroyd, First Light

Something of a puzzle, this novel. My first by Peter Ackroyd, meaning I have little more than the Wikipedia entry to go on by way of comparison, but which does at least allow me to establish with wikiauthority that First Light is ‘of a piece’ with Ackroyd’s fictional oeuvre, dealing as it does with concepts of time, space and place.

I found a good deal of First Light quite moving. It has as its principal themes endings and beginnings, truth and the interpretation of evidence, and different notions of what it means to be part of a family. At the centre of the narrative is an archaeological dig, the excavation of a tumulus – an ancient burial mound – in a valley somewhere in the deep south west.

As the dig progresses the identity of the site shifts and changes – was it a shrine to ancient magus-like astronomer? a primitive observatory itself? or something else entirely? Interwoven with the difficult progress of the archaeology are stories of other ‘uncoverings’, including an ageing stage comic searching for the cottage in which he was born, and a modern astronomer looking for elusive meaning in his increasingly barren life.

Most successful, for me, is the way Ackroyd links together different examples of how new knowledge can cast old ‘facts’ into completely new light. At one point the archaeologist leading the dig observes that:

No one was certain of anything any more. Orthodox theories and even the most reasonable calculations seemed to decay or to dissolve in the face of these discoveries. And, as the expectations of the archaeologists wavered and changed, so did the evidence itself; the closer they came to the actual stones and relics, the more these objects retreated into a kind of unknowability.

This is widened by Ackroyd – through the voice of the existential astronomer – into questions about the nature of reality itself:

We know now that the scientist is actually controlling the reality while he observes it. The spin of a sub-atomic particle, for example, always does what the physicist expects.

In this brave new world, Ackroyd asks, why are our modern ‘stories’ – whether those of quantum physics or astronomy – any more valid than those of ancient times, when the stars were living creatures moving across the sky?

All this works very well: it’s coherent, thought-provoking, unusual and effective. What I really don’t understand, though, is why the author felt the apparently uncontrollable urge to shoehorn into this serious novel an all-too-rich vein of slapstick comedy, in the form of one of the major characters, a middle-aged lesbian civil servant of the matronly English Rose variety.

I may be missing something but I simply don’t see what Evangeline Tupper accomplishes (even that name sets my teeth on edge!), and in amongst the philosophical introspection she sticks out like the sorest of sore thumbs. Without her and the few other minor characters who seem hell-bent on making this an archaeological Archers or even a Last Of The Summer Wine, First Light would, I reckon, have been a really good book.

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