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August 2019



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The Countenance Divine, Michael Hughes

This book will be out in August and is already creating a buzz. In 1666, that annus mirabilis, Thomas Allgood is working as John Milton’s secretary while at the same time spying on him. In 1777, William Blake creates a creature or homunculus from one of Milton’s ribs. In 1888 ‘Jack’ describes and justifies the murders he commits in Whitechapel. In 1999 a computer programmer called Chris is working on fixing the millennium bug while becoming involved with co-worker Lucy, who has some seriously weird preoccupations. What they all have in common is that at some time each has in his possession a curious little wooden puzzle, or rebus, which fascinates them. The other linking factor is that each sees a cloaked and hooded man with a shining metallic mask instead of a face. Plus, each feels in some way special, singled out for a great purpose.

Each of these characters has his own voice, faithfully reproduced in the correct style of the period. This kind of pastiche is very clever but it’s been done before; by Peter Ackroyd for example. It happens that I’m familiar with seventeenth century prose and also know my Milton and my Blake. What would people without this advantage make of the book? It’s inevitably rather elitist. Worse, it does not hold one’s interest. I was constantly reading another section, putting the book aside in order to read something quite different, then returning to it with a dogged ‘I will finish this book!’ feeling. I was looking for a sense of direction, a conclusion of some kind, however fantastical. Numerology? Complete nonsense. Likewise Millenarianism.

You will gather that I didn’t get this book at all. It pains me to be harsh about something which is, after all, much better than most books which get published but I found it to be pretentious tosh.

The Countenance Divine is published by John Murray and I read it courtesy of NetGalley.