Spirit of the Place by Dennis Hamley

I have never been a fan of the eighteenth century. Literature, drama, style, politics, culture they all leave me thankful that the Romantics burst onto the scene saving us all from the worst excesses of what went before.

But in Spirit of the Place, Dennis Hamley draws me into his vision of the eighteenth century and opens my eyes to possibilities. My first favourable impression was the description of the aging Alexander Pope. Just as I imagined him to be. And immediately I realised this was not going to be a straight homage to an age I hated. It was an examination of the age from a variety of perspectives. All wrapped up in a brilliant storyline. There is not so much a tension between fiction and reality as a frisson between the two. In that respect I found it to be as exciting as Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, one of my favourite plays, the memory of which Spirit of the Place evoked more than once – in a good way.

The language didn’t jar. I could believe in the eighteenth century parts while not feeling a jar when the story moved back and forth between past and present (well, two different pasts now I suppose!) The novel is what is these days called ‘timeslip’ and looks at happenings in 1793 and 1993 drawing links and parallels between them. I promised myself in writing this review I would not go into plot AT ALL, because I don’t want to spoil any part of it for the reader.

I can tell you that it deals with notions of man and his relative place in nature – and there are interesting parallels between 18th century neo-classicism and late 20th century genetics.  There is also a fascinating retrospective view of the emergence of the Internet which should give all contemporary readers a pause for thought and a slight shiver about how quickly things are moving.  There’s also more than a hint of the supernatural.  Nothing is what it seems and the plot (of which I refuse to speak) really does keep you engaged throughout.

I found myself slowing down my reading pace because while I was desperate to know what happened next, I didn’t want to finish the story. This to me is the mark of a truly good novel. I was so glad that the ebook ‘updated’ edition included a postscript which brought events nearly up to date! But I wished I’d read it when originally published as well. I wish it had been part of my minds library all these years.

Spirit of the Place was originally published in 1995 as what is now referred to as a Young Adult novel (where would we be without all these categorical definitions eh?) but I have to say I’d never have thought it.  I suspect it was more down to extant relationships with childrens publisher Scholastic than anything else. Why a mainstream publisher didn’t pick it up then remains a mystery as profound as those contained within the novel itself.  All I can say is when I was a Young Adult (many moons ago) there was no such category and I have to say I think it can be a dual edged sword.  In 1995 I was in my mid 30s and there’s no way I would have bought a young adult novel. But in 1995 I read and enjoyed Arcadia. I didn’t see it performed till 2005. To my mind Spirit of the Place is very much adult fiction (no, I don’t mean adult fiction xxx) in that it deals with some deep issues. Yes they are accessible but they are not issues just of interest to young adults. So I’m sorry that I never got the chance to read it back then, but I’m happy to have had the chance to read it now. It’s one of those books with images that will stay with me. That’s why I’m not telling you ANYTHING about the plot.  I want you to have the experience and go on the journey for yourself. But do go!

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

Available in kindle format

Find out more about Dennis Hamley

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