FIRST LIGHT by Peter Ackroyd


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Ackroyd's fifth novel is about an archaeological dig in contemporary England that goes awry; it is his most straightforward work to date, without the allusiveness or narrative tricks of Hawksmoor (1985) or Chatterton (1987). A fire in a wooded valley on the Dorset/Devon border has uncovered a neolithic burial mound (c. 2500 B.C.). The story tracks its excavation by an archaeological team; its goals, declares team leader Mark Clare, ""include total recovery, objective interpretation."" The archaeologists discover that the tumulus was created by star-worshippers, a finding con. firmed by local astronomer Damian Fall; Mark himself discovers an underground chamber. The site becomes big news; hippies set up camp nearby. But acts of vandalism lower the team's morale: Are they the work of the valley's owners, Farmer Mint and son Boy, who are clearly not the rubes they affect to be? A variety of personal dramas are interwoven with the storyline. These concern Mark's crippled, neurotic wife Kathleen, who will commit suicide; the gloomy astronomer Fall, whose conviction of failure drives him toward madness; and Joey Hanover, a retired comedian searching for his pre-adoption roots and discovering that Farmer Mint is his cousin. Campy comic relief is provided by the terribly jolly Evangeline Tupper, the civil servant responsible for the project, who shows up with her lesbian lover, Baby Doll. The novel ends with a centuries-old coffin from the underground chamber being torched, as the Mints triumph in the struggle to preserve their ancestral ground from archaeological scrutiny. A discordant, unsuccessful mix of comic, suspense, and speculative elements. Mark Clare, who might have anchored the work, is undeveloped, as is the core issue of his capitulation to the Mints. Between lofty speculations on Time and the dead, and the low. grade buffoonery of his Mints and Tuppers, Ackroyd provides no middle ground.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1989
ISBN: 0345368878
Publisher: Grove