Posted on 19th October 2010

By Steve Potter, Commercial trading manager, The Book Depository

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Fiction Uncovered by… Steve Potter, The Book Depository

While reading the highly acclaimed C by Tom McCarthy, I was put in mind of an author of whom I have been a fan for many years, Alan Wall. In particular I was reminded of Wall’s last novel, Sylvie’s Riddle (2008), which explores the relationship between science and the arts through the character of Sylvie and her scriptwriter husband. Like McCarthy, Wall’s storylines often revolve around memory and the torment they cause. As his publisher Quartet puts it, Sylvie’s Riddle is a novel ‘about the images we create and those we are relentlessly pursued by’. In 2003, Wall was awarded an Arts Council/AHRB Fellowship to work for a year with the particle physicist Goronwy Tudor Jones at Birmingham University. The aim of the Fellowship was to promote understanding between the arts and the sciences, and I like to think of Sylvie’s Riddle as, perhaps, one of the results of that partnership.

I first discovered Wall in 1999 with the publication of The Lightning Cage (1999). The novel revolves around two lives, that of the modern day narrator, an academic, and the object of his study, an eighteenth-century poet. It is difficult to describe concisely the complexity of this book and the ways in which these two lives and voices are interwoven but here, too, memory and betrayal abound, mixed with meditations on religion, mental illness and the nature of fear. Almost every page gives pause, while never detracting from a real sense of pace. A stunning book but sadly one that has now gone out of print.

Likewise it seems for The School of Night (2001) and Bless the Thief (1997). In both novels the protagonists are almost manically devoted to researching and restoring the past (‘The School of the Night’ being a clandestine group of Walter Raleigh’s devotees), and discussions on alchemy, science and the arts are tied together with a complex emotional interplay between characters and eras. Again both show evidence of Wall’s greatest skill: an ability to make his complex work both accessible and fast paced – intrigue and suspense are never far away. These are books that I always find myself returning to, rereading the increasingly tattered pages of the copies on my shelf.

It is great that Quartet continue to publish this fantastic novelist (and poet, published by Shearsman Books), but please bring back the backlist.  


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