Book Review: Arcadia by Iain Pears

Book: Arcadia by Iain PearsArcadia is full of stories overlapping stories until you don’t quite know which story is real. It begins with Anterworld, a fictional universe imagined into being by Professor Lytten, an old friend of the late Tolkein. It soon transpires, however, that there is much more going on than the telling of a story. Anterworld is a very simple world in which the storyteller is revered and celebrated, where knowledge is precious and everything refers back to ‘The Story’ – a set of written texts which scholars study and memorise, in order to understand them and preserve them for future generations.   

Lytten is happy with his created world, determined to keep it as simple as possible – a utopian version of reality. His first character is a young boy (Jay) who is reprimanded for asking questions after seeing what he thinks is a fairy inside a cave. He becomes a scholar, apprenticed to a storyteller (named Henary) and soon learns that there is far more of interest in the world than he ever imagined.

Meanwhile, Professor Lytten’s cat-sitter (fifteen-year-old Rosie) becomes curious when the cat disappears, and stumbles across something unusual in the Professor’s cellar, entering what appears to be a parallel universe. It soon transpires that she has stepped inside Anterworld itself, causing unimaginable consequences.

Many years later (or possibly in another alternative universe) Angela Meerson is an emotionally unstable yet incredible mathematician, desperate to keep her life’s work out of the hands of those who wish to use it for material gain. Aware that she has created a kind of time machine, and afraid of what could happen, she does what she has to in order to protect herself and continue developing her ideas, and she ends up colliding with Professor Lytten and Rosie in 1960s Oxford. But she is not alone. Soon there are several people searching across time and space for both her and Lytten, determined to find her invention and use it to save their dying world. And as the book progresses, it becomes clear that when you mess with time, things can get very, very complicated.

Whilst the fate of the universe hangs in the balance, Rosie remains in Anterworld, falling in love with an outlaw, and Henary is shocked to discover that something quite extraordinary can occur within Anteworld, whilst Angela must finish her experiment and rescue those who have travelled into it before it takes over the real world.

This is a book which begins with multiple characters, multiple dimensions, and multiple timezones, all converging eventually to become something incredible and precarious. It is a book about stories within stories within stories, a book about the surreal nature of history and time itself, which questions our very understanding of the universe in which we live.

I began with confusion, but the further I read, the more fascinated I became. There are too many characters in this book, but gradually you begin to piece them together into a multi-dimensional jigsaw on an epic scale. Once you get going, and begin to make connections, it becomes a riveting read, overflowing with ideas, but balanced out with believable and fascinating characters. It’s still got me wondering, several days after finishing the book itself, and although I found it difficult to remember who was who (or where, or when) at times, the story more than makes up for it.

Arcadia by Iain Pears is published by Faber & Faber. Buy the book here.

I would also highly recommend Iain Pears’ art history crime fiction series, featuring the detective Jonathan Argyll. The first one is The Raphael Affair.

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