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A first-rate drama from Clarke (Sunday Whiteman, 1973): two parallel narratives--about an alchemical quest in England--that's at once an erudite disquisition on the hermetic art and a spellbinding romance. In the 1980's, Alex Darken, a young poet, arrives in an isolated English village where he meets aging Edward Nesbit (""among the half-legendary poets of the '40s and '50s"") and his lover Laura. Nesbit has thrown over poetry for an alchemical esoteric investigation: with Laura, he's attempting to reconstruct a 19th-century study of a similar nature conducted (140 years earlier) by Henry Agnew (""I am a Christian, and it is no disgrace to be that and an Hermetic at the same time"") and by his daughter Louisa, also a devotee--both Henry and Louisa are assisted by the rector Edwin Frere. The chapters, good on the detail of rural England, alternate between the two triangles: both Darken and Frere are initiated into the Mysteries by degrees, the former by Tarot cards and the latter especially by the Gypsy May, ""a grotesquely unchristian figure."" With much incident, the pace of the intellectual search (heavily dependent upon Jungian sources) and the personal drama increase. Amid hermetic digressions (""Materialism leaves us trapped in a world that won't hold together""), Darken, who fled from his family when his wife fell in love with someone else, and Frere, married, begin to fall for Laura and Louisa, respectively. This is no torrid romance, however, but a deftly handled chronicle in which inner struggle takes precedence over soap-opera, and the plotline--which uses a good deal of melodrama effectively--eventually allows the contemporary characters, after much conflict, to learn front the mistakes of their predecessors: ""Are you telling me the secret is there is no secret?"" Maybe, maybe not. Part Fowles, part Eco, and, despite its arcane detail, deserving of a large readership.

Pub Date: Oct. 20th, 1989
ISBN: 0449001180
Publisher: Knopf