Posted on August 19, 2016
39. ‘Arcadia’ by Iain Pears
Have you ever read a book that came so highly recommended it couldn’t possibly live up to the idea you had of it in your head? Yeh, that was Arcadia for me.
Arcadia is set across multiple times and in multiple worlds. It features a ballsy young female protagonist and a magic portal in a basement, a time-travelling scientist and a world based on stories. In essence, it has loads of elements that would usually draw me right in, but I’m afraid it didn’t. At all. I think the reasons for this are twofold.
First, I got this book out of the library because it came so highly recommended on BookTube. The reviewer, like me, is an enormous fan of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and she said that Arcadia gave her the closest feeling she’s had to reading that trilogy for the first time. Obviously that’s a big recommendation to follow, and while I’m so pleased Pears’ novel did that for her, I’m afraid for me it simply couldn’t stand up to being compared to one of the greatest series of all time.
Second, Iain Pears was doing something quite experimental with this book, which I don’t think quite worked. If you are an iPhone user and you are interested in Arcadia, you can download an app which allows you to read the book in any order you like. Essentially, the novel has 10 major plot threads running through it; using the app you can jump between these threads as and when you want. Read the entirety of one before you read any others, if you like, or mix and match your way through. Pears has said that the physical book is just one way to read the story – a way which he put together. Unfortunately, I thought his ordering of the story often didn’t make sense, and for a book that deals with time travel anyway, trying to leap forwards and backwards within the main plot was simply too confusing and quite off-putting.
Still, let’s give a plot summary a go. Henry Lytten, an Oxford Fellow, wants to write a fantasy world to rival the worlds created by his peers, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. He wants to create a world that could really work, complete with political and economic and social systems that all function organically together. Thus he creates Anterworld. In a distant future, scientist Angela Meerson, whilst trying to create a portal to alternative universes, makes a time travel device and travels to Henry Lytten’s time. One day, Rosie, the girl who comes over to feed Henry’s cat, steps through the device left in Henry’s basement by Angela, and thus the adventure truly begins.
OK, that’s a pretty confusing premise, but it was handled quite well at the beginning and I was willing to go with it. However, as the story went on I thought there were simply too many threads to follow. What’s more, each of the threads tries to handle a different major theme, and sometimes even a different genre, so there’s fantasy, romance, crime thriller, sci-fi … it’s just all a bit much and also quite messy. Because Pears is trying to do so much, some fairly important aspects of the storytelling go astray: the point of view can shift confusingly, the exposition can be too long and obvious, character motivations can feel a little off and the relationships between characters can be rushed and, therefore, not very believable. In many ways I thought Arcadia read a bit like a first draft.
I’m not trying to fault Pears’ ambition. I think he’s taken on a mammoth task with this novel and produced something that is, in places, quite entertaining. However, I just think it’s too full of faults to really work well, and it certainly cannot be compared to the mythic grandeur of His Dark Materials.
“You’ve been writing that book of yours for years, and now it’s fed up waiting and is trying to finish itself.”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!