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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Iain Pears

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To purchase Arcadia

Title: Arcadia
Author: Iain Pears
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015
Length: 514 pages
Availability: Arcadia - US
Arcadia - UK
Arcadia - Canada
Arcadia - India
Arcadia - España

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Our Assessment:

A : exceptionally good fun; very nicely and cleverly woven-together story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 11/12/2015 Isabel Berwick
The Guardian . 11/9/2015 Steven Poole
The Independent . 29/9/2015 .
The NY Times Book Rev. B 27/3/2016 Scott Bradfield
The Spectator . 5/9/2015 Andrew Taylor
Wall St. Journal A 12/2/2016 Michael Dirda
The Washington Post . 31/1/2016 Steve Donoghue

  From the Reviews:
  • "Arcadia cannot be broken down -- it has to be swallowed whole, as a tour de force of imagination." - Isabel Berwick, Financial Times

  • "Nothing in the style in which Pears writes all this down is likely to confuse the average teenager. Indeed, Arcadia seems to be aimed at the lucrative crossover point between the grownup and YA markets, even if it lacks the antic density of the Harry Potter series or the focused peril of The Hunger Games. (...) The prose is simple, casual and cheerfully anachronistic. (...) The pages of Arcadia flip by easily, and there is fun in trying to guess exactly how its different worlds are related. Yet the novel overall has a curious feeling of weightlessness: ideas are thrown together without much compelling detail or texture." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "Treat this novel, and its app, as a meme-park where a whole menagerie of tropes, themes, myths and motifs from centuries of fantasy and romance can frolic -- although forever overshadowed by the sense that death stalks all our earthly paradises." - The Independent

  • "Arcadia is not an easy book to summarize, but itís a book that spends a lot of time trying to summarize itself. (...) Pears is a great writer of ideas and intellectual adventure, but not quite so good at envisioning worlds." - Scott Bradfield, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Arcadia is not so much a novel as a cornucopia of narratives. These unfold through three interlocking universes and involve the viewpoints of ten characters. In case this isnít enough, the book is bundled with an elegantly designed app for iPad and iPhone containing the text of the novel. (...) Arcadia may have its shortcomings, but itís also ambitious, amusing and very readable. Embrace the confusion and enjoy." - Andrew Taylor, The Spectator

  • "Now, set out like this -- with some care not to reveal too much -- Arcadia probably sounds either confusing or twee. Itís neither. There are indeed puzzles, and people arenít always quite what they seem, but nothing in the narrative is particularly hard to follow. (...) Despite its apocalyptic thrust, Arcadia is quite lightsomely comic in tone." - Michael Dirda, Wall Street Journal

  • "Pears steadily folds and refolds the texture of his narrative, loading it with more and more imbrications until it seems like the superstructure itself will collapse. (...) (A)s Pears steadily builds his multiplicity of stories, his orchestrations become something far more ambitious, a calculated and at times quite droll assault on the very nature of narrative itself. Itís almost as if Pears himself is playing with the app." - Steve Donoghue, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Arcadia begins in 1960 Oxford, with a scholar, Henry Lytten, reading a story he is working on at a gathering of an Inklings-like group (in which his colleagues -- and real-life Inklings-participants -- fabulators C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien had also been active). The fifty-year-old Henry had been in the intelligence service during the war, but now is the retiring sort, dedicating himself to the works of the poet Sidney (best known for his massive Arcadia). These weekly get-togethers where would-be writers share their efforts is one of his few remaining outside activities. Among the few other people he regularly spends time with is the fifteen year-old girl from across the street, the smart Rosalind 'Rosie' Wilson, who enjoys his company and also looks after his cat on occasion.
       Lytten had dabbled in story-writing before, but his current project is more ambitious: "I want to construct a society that works", he explains -- by which he also means: works better than the one he finds himself in.
       Twenty pages into Arcadia the scene and time shift abruptly: the second thread of the novel takes place in what turns out to be some two hundred years in the future. Society works here -- but it's rather different than, for example, the idyll Lytten wants to imagine. Technologically advanced, it in fact resembles the plodding work of another from Lytten's storytelling-group, Persimmon:

through an extraordinary feat of imagination, he had taken the very worst of communism and the very worst of capitalism and fused them together into a monstrous whole.
       Among the advances of that age are implants that readily affect human minds, age-defying treatments that keep people young and healthy much longer, and even kinds of intelligence enhancement. Angela Meerson ("Actual age is seventy-eight; biological age is early twenties") is one of those whose intellect had been experimentally greatly expanded -- with some side-effects that make her a problematic element in this society. Working on an isolated island research institute under bureaucrat Robert Hanslip she has made quite the breakthrough: as Hanslip sees it, she had found a way to move between alternate universes, opening the way to a potentially infinite number. This would be handy on the overpopulated earth (they've given up on space travel, for a variety of reasons, but could certainly do with packing off billions elsewhere), and the powers that be are interested in getting their grubby hands on this fantastic invention. But Angela has a different theory about what she's discovered: that it doesn't transport matter across universes, but rather simply across what we understand to be time -- she insists it is a time machine, which would be a far more dangerous and problematic thing -- indeed, too dangerous for anyone to have control over. When the powerful Oldmanter moves in to take over the invention he sets the action in motion: Angela wants to protect her discovery and keep it from falling into his hands: she bolts -- and how else to bolt but via the machine ?
       Angela winds up back in the 1930s, eventually making the acquaintance of Henry Lytten and even working for British intelligence during the war (though not tapping into her mathematical abilities, since they are far too far advanced for the times). She means to eventually reconstruct her machine, and set things right using that; she does so slowly building up a prototype -- in Henry's basement (explaining the machine to be a modern art-work in progress, which is generally explanation enough for anyone who asks to lose all interest in it). And she needs a story to work with, "a robust but simple outline, a world of the imagination which, however incomplete, was coherent, structured and -- most of all -- possible" -- and Henry's seems to fit the bill perfectly. In fact, she had first tried using Tolkien's, but that was a big mess. No, Henry's seemed the way to go:
Henry hasn't written a story, only notes. He never finishes anything. Anterwold was meant to be a snapshot. I designed it so nothing could happen. No causes, no effects, no consequences.
       Unfortunately the machine has a portal -- an entrance -- of sorts, and when Lytten's cat couldn't be found Rosie went to look for the cat and found the portal ... and went in. And her visits -- first a brief one, then a more extended bifurcating one -- set everything in motion, making for complications left and right (and all along the space-time continuum).
       The third thread of the novel is set in Lytten's imagined-but-independently-come-to-life (thanks to Angela, and catalyst Rosie) Anterwold itself, a charming if rather backward place (as Rosie frequently complains) where it is 'the Story' that is venerated above all. Rosie describes the Story as: "a bit like a cross between the Bible and the Encyclopaedia Britannica", and it is, of course, Lytten's (very incomplete) fantasy-world-story. This is problematic: as Rosalind explains to Lytten:
You've been writing that book of yours for years, and now it's fed up waiting and is trying to finish itself. You should tidy up loose ends. Agatha Christie does.
       This is all good fun, but, as Angela realizes, might soon get very uncomfortably out of hand:
     "It is not good. I still don't know what Anterwold is but eventually a logical sequence of events will connect it to now. When that happens, all sorts of unpleasant consequences will follow."
     "Why not pleasant ones ?"
     "An entire universe rampaging around like a bull in a china shop is unlikely to be pleasant. Anything which doesn't fit will be erased."
       Things are turbulent in the future too, where various parties are looking for Angela and/or her discovery. And Angela is not the only person to travel back in time, nor Rosalind the only 'real-world' visitor to Anterwold ..... Pears moves back and forth between these different time/place-lines -- and ingeniously connects them. It all sounds rather complicated, but is actually reasonably easy to follow, even as the story moves simultaneously across various planes -- a three-dimensional chess game rather than just the usual two.
       Throw in some Cold War espionage complications, both romance and contested leadership in Anterwold (not helped by a bizarre system of succession), all the worst of the future dystopia, along with many literary allusions ("You may have got that from The Wizard of Oz. You steal ideas from everyone", a slightly exasperated Rosie tells Henry at one point) -- including, especially, Shakespeare -- and Pears has mixed together an intricate story that is suspenseful and tremendous fun.
       It's nicely layered on, bit by bit and twist by twist. "Well, that's complicated everything, hasn't it ?" Angela sighs, well into the tale, but that could almost be the motto for the book itself, as new complications (and connections between the three story-/reality-planes) continue to crop up. What's so neat, however, is how tidily Pears has it all figured out: for all its far-flung characters and events the novel works almost like clockwork. In no small part Arcadia is about storytelling, too, and while the strands of the story (and 'the Story') can seem to be in (sometimes close to desperate) flux it is of course a story fixed in black and white on the page, all set and all settled too -- providing both the pleasure of the suspense of the possibilities Pears seems to offer and the certainty of one long-fixed, pre-determined outcome.
       Arcadia is a clever concept novel but concepts alone don't necessarily make for reading enjoyment. Pears, however, tells a very good story, regardless of level -- both that of the individual strands and the larger interconnected structure. Yes, it gets a bit complicated at times, what's woven together here in some of the episodes, but as in an elaborate carpet, the bigger picture(s) ultimately are entirely clear -- and quite stunning. (If there is any weak spot, it is in the character(ization) of the slightly inconsistent Rosalind/Rosie, some of whose reactions to what she encounters is too implausible; the way she comes into her own, however, almost makes that forgivable.)
       There's an element of literary showmanship here -- as Pears is well-aware, with the position of 'Storyteller' an important but also slightly ridiculous one in Anterwold -- but it's also all so good-natured rather than intellectual-stuffy. Pears proves himself a very adept craftsman: this may not be the deepest or most profound of novels, but it also never tries to be: Pears accomplishes everything he sets out to, and he does so in very entertaining style. There may be readers who are put off by the strong science fiction element -- fantasy-worlds and time-travel and whatnot -- and there may be science fiction-fans who find it a bit too basic for their tastes, but otherwise Arcadia seems very hard to resist.
       Arcadia is very clever, a lot of fun, and tremendously entertaining; for all its seeming complexity it is also quite a lite read -- but among the best pass-time reads of recent years.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 December 2015

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Arcadia: Reviews: Other books by Iain Pears under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Iain Pears was born in 1955. He attended Oxford and has written numerous books.

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© 2015-2020 the complete review

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