Something Wicked This Way Comes

The Standing Pool by Adam Thorpe

Anyone who has ever yearned to escape Britain and immerse themselves in the healing countryside of la France profonde had better not read Adam Thorpe’s new novel. Or perhaps they should, and instead of envying former compatriots who have leapt the Channel, enjoy a frisson of gratitude for the comfortable familiarity of our land of constant drizzle, slow trains and strong tea on tap.

The title is taken from “the green mantle of the standing pool” spoken of in King Lear, a superficial calm beneath which all manner of foul things fermented. As it happens, there is just such a pool in the Languedoc farmhouse which two unworldly academics, the historians Nick and Sarah Mallinson, have rented for a six-month sabbatical. When they arrive there from their cramped Cambridge terrace, with their three young daughters in tow, the Mallinsons have high hopes of becoming culturally enriched and spiritually rested. Instead, however, their chosen slice of rural France is teeming with oddities and violent bullies: if there is a Shakespeare quotation that infuses the action, it derives not from Lear but Macbeth: “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.”

The pricking, to the author’s credit, is masterfully maintained for a large proportion of the book, as the wickedness gently circles closer. Thorpe is highly skilled at mani­pulating the approach and partial retreat of unease, the almost imperceptible massing of bad karma. It starts with the couple who own the house, the brash husband of whom, Alan, is an American antiques dealer, enriched by the looting of antiquities from Iraq and sacred tribal masks, some of which are hidden in the holiday home.

The old house nurses its own secrets: traumatic deaths in its grounds, from the Second World War onwards, are only gradually unveiled. It also comes complete with a misfit caretaker who spends his life struggling to regulate the pool’s alkaline content by means of powerful chemicals. If the character of a spooky handyman is something of a stock one, then the author nonetheless demonstrates that it has plenty of worrisome pizzazz in it yet. All of this is saved from any overtones of Hammer House of Horror and indeed made all the more convincing by Thorpe’s beautifully precise style and sharp eye for social comedy and domestic detail.

Each of the characters is a recognisable type, yet sufficiently well drawn to be spared caricature. Take Lucy, Alan’s gallery-owner wife, “whose beauty was taking affectionate leave of her features from behind a screen of cosmetics”. Or Jamie, Nick Mallinson’s resentful adult son from his first marriage, with whom his infuriated stepmother resists confrontations “since any victory on her part would lead to something worse than Jamie the Annoyance: Jamie the Avenger”.

Thorpe has subtly thickened the atmo­sphere in this novel with historical resentments, whether personal or territorial. Only the immediate Mallinson family — who for all the parents’ intellectual prowess are essentially a bunch of English innocents abroad — is relatively free from bitterness, but unwittingly draws the anger and lust of others like water to a sponge. The reader, alert on their behalf, spends most of the novel anticipating some looming disaster to which the Mallinsons will almost certainly be blind.

The earlier part of the book is more successful in tweaking that anticipation. Later come some rather crudely cinematic plot twists, and a confusing play of endings: it is as though the author, having spent almost all the novel painting in delicately shaded hues, suddenly hurled a bucket of red paint at the canvas and then was at civilised pains to erase it again. Still, the pleasure of travelling to the end was so great that I find myself willing to overlook the dismaying moment of ­ arrival.

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