I hate the word ‘compelling’ in reviews. It is to literary fiction what ‘stunning’ is to the wedding industry – but unfortunately sometimes it’s the word that keeps coming to mind. Michael Hughes’ debut novel The Countenance Divine is a compelling read: clever; multi-layered; riotous and occasionally hallucinatory. I suspect this book isn’t for everyone – if you don’t like David Mitchell you are unlikely to enjoy this – but I found it very rewarding. Please don’t hold the ‘compelling’ against it.
The book starts off straightforwardly enough, in London with mild mannered Chris in 1999. He is a computer programmer working to ensure the Y2K bug doesn’t bring about the end of the world as we know it. He tries to ignore both his growing attraction to his goth colleague Lucy (who kinda hopes the end of the world is nigh), and the return of his childhood belief that he is in fact the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, in 1888 women are being brutally murdered in the East End by a young man who writes graphic letters ‘from hell’ outlining his crimes. In 1777 an apprentice engraver, artist and poet called William Blake has a defining spiritual experience which leads him down an extraordinary path; while in 1666 poet and revolutionary John Milton sacrifices his eyesight and much more to ensure his name lives through the centuries by completing his epic Paradise Lost. All of these characters are connected through the age old fight between good and evil, between heaven and hell – and in other more concrete ways they could not have expected.
Chris is a lovely warm character, and his story was the one I connected with most because I was rooting for him. The Ripper letters are lurid, nightmarish, and convincingly capture the viewpoint of a disturbed, not very literate individual being manipulated by someone/something else. The William Blake story line was probably the least satisfying – although this is probably only because I’m a bit obsessed with William Blake! The collision of sweet simplicity and the unnerving supernatural does capture the spirit of Blake perfectly however… and indeed the Milton sections have him as the dry pain-in-the-hole he is in my mind! Fair warning though that the ending of the book is mildly unsatisfying, partly because of a slightly fumbled ‘catch’ of all the narrative balls in the air, partly because the distinct idioms of each of the timelines becomes cacophonous when the stories cleave together. This, however, is a relatively mild quibble about a deeply interesting book that could never have been heading toward a pat conclusion. If The Countenance Divine is a highly ambitious debut, it is because Michael Hughes is a considerable talent. Fans of Hilary Mantel and David Mitchell in particular would do well to check this one out.
The Countenance Divine is published by John Murray Ltd. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review