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“Drainage Mills in the Fens, Croyland”, by John Sell Cotman, c. 1835

What a strange and elusive beast is The Great Level! Hard to decide what it is: Tillyard as novelist (and scholar of English literature), essaying almost the opposite of what she did so well in her 2011 debut novel Tides of War (an intelligent romp through the peaks and troughs of the Peninsular War, which rarely paused to sit, watch and listen to the hinterland of busy events, or to unwind gently the spool of profound love until its true extent could be measured); or, a celebrated historian’s imaginative glimpse of English and Dutch colonial history, narrated from the England of 1649-1652 (in London, Ely, Kings Lynn and thereabouts) and the East Coast of America in 1664 (successively “Nieuw Nederland”, “Niew Amsterdam” and “New Amsterdam” in the southern extremity of what became Manhattan Island), with occasional detours to Holland over the same period. It is both things, of course, but arguably less successful as fictional storytelling than as the re-rendering of history. Readers are more likely to find The Great Level compelling if already drawn to the conundrum of creating order and edge from the marshy wilderness of the Fens, or cultivatable land from the spongey swamps of Virginia. If this book would make the perfect gift for a civil engineer with a liking for poetry, one could equally tease that it would be perfect for a student of the 17th century seeking an oblique insight into the look and feel of the times — but that would be mean, as it is much, much more.

Still, The Great Level has the reader bumping repeatedly against the question of what Tillyard is trying to do, just as the Dutch surveyor and civil engineer Jan Brunt bumps up against the islands as he drifts through the reeds. The lassitude that Tillyard conveys in the first four Parts and particularly in the Fenland scenes is utterly credible but demands considerable patience of the reader, who must turn many pages before anything much happens, and must wait until Part Five before the point of the alternation between locations and dates becomes properly clear.

The love affair the blurb promises is an evanescent thing which Brunt seems content to let drift wherever it takes him. The action is often borrowed from the wider historical context — the England of the Civil War, and the Americas when King Charles II decided to gift a portion of his new colonial lands to his brother James. But whereas Tides of War was vigorous in its depiction of political and military events, The Great Level can seem almost too subtle: the reader lulled — almost hypnotised — into the period, rather than thrown gloriously into its cut and thrust.

Brunt is a convincing but frustrating character to choose as the focus for such a stretch. A reticent foreigner who talks to himself rather than to real people, he is utterly unlike the woman of the Fens who bewitches him and reappears towards the end of the novel, there providing amusement, action and narrative drive such as fans of the unconventional Harriet in Tides of War may have been hoping for. Brunt seems almost perversely naive and incurious — you want to shake him out of his passivity and his trance-like state, whereas Eliza is savvy, ever watchful, almost scheming — and yet holds back from abusing the reader’s trust.
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