The Countenance Divine by Michael Hughes
What a gorgeous cover, eh?
Many among you will recognise the title of this novel as coming from Jerusalem – the celebrated hymn with words by Blake and music by Parry.
In fact, Blake’s words are taken from the preface to a much longer work, Milton, a Poem. The short poem we now know as Jerusalem, was inspired by the (apocryphal) tale of Jesus visiting England with Joseph of Arimathea and the second coming as prophesied in the Book of Revelations. In the epic Milton, a Poem, from the 1800s, Milton returns from heaven to joins with Blake to explore the relationships between living writers and their predecessors and they undergo a spiritual journey.
I was glad to have looked this up before reading The Countenance Divine, for without it, I fear I would have been totally lost within its depths – this is an ambitious debut novel with four interconnecting storylines, each 111 years apart.
It begins fairly conventionally in the latter weeks of 1999 where Chris is a computer bod working on the Y2K problem – which could, it was thought, bring our technological world to an end.
Chris knew that computers didn’t really think anything. They were just machines, which used fixed rules of logic to carry out calculations, faster and more reliably than we could.
But some of these calculations involved future events, and we’d forgotten to tell them that the future didn’t stop at the end of nineteen ninety-nine. As far as the computers understood, everything to come after that had already taken place long ago.
Some of them would figure out this was wrong, and tell us. Others would simply stop working. Some would continue to function, but give out inaccurate information. Others would be entirely unaffected. The trouble was, there was no way to predict which, and not enough time to check all of them just in case. By the time we realised this was a serious problem, it was already too late.
Chris is reserved and socially awkward, unlike workmate Lucy, a Goth who loves piercings, but is also good at her job. However, just as we’re beginning to get to know Chris and Lucy, we’re taken back in time…
To 1888 where an unidentified author is sending letters ‘From Hell‘ after murdering women in Whitechapel – yes, this is the time of terror when Jack the Ripper stalked the streets.
I send you half the Kidne I took from one women prasarved it for you tother piece I friend and ate it was very nise. I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a whil longer.
Catch me when you can Mishter Lusk.
Then we go back again, to 1777. William Blake, the engraver, is obsessed by obtaining a relic of his hero, John Milton, for Milton’s body had been dug up and was being sold off bit by bit. Blake has visions of angels and recreating Milton from his rib.
I saw angels often, but I never spoke with one till I was twenty years old, seventeen and seventy-seven. That sacred year opened by life to me. I live still within its eternal bounds. I am the figure one, followed by the three sevens: my Catherine, my master Milton, and my angel, whom I first knew on that holy day, walking in Dulwich.
Finally we visit 1666 and the blind poet Milton himself, just before the great fire of London. Milton, a republican, had been opposed to the restoration of the monarchy and a man called Allgood is sent to be his secretary, reporting back on the old revolutionary to the King’s agent.
But what wrong has he done? said I.
Not what he has done, said he, but what he may do. There are some abroad in these days who wish to see nothing less than the End Times all upon us, and they plan a wild destruction to cleanse our London of all its sin. I wish to know is Milton party to it. If he is not, than those Doomsday Men are sure to seek him out, for he is a beacon to those who yet wish England to be rid of its King for good and all, with Christ Returned instead upon the throne.
Hughes goes back and forwards between the four time-lines, telling each story in a distinctly different voice and narrative style consistent with their historic period as you’ll see from the quotes above. Each thread increasingly resonates with the other as motifs, visions and artifacts move up the time-lines until they all come together in the present on New Year’s Eve 1999 for the climax. That makes it sound more straight-forward than it actually is; The story gets darker and darker throughout, and I found it quite complex, especially the Milton and Blake sections – I’m sure I missed many other links, references and allusions. I was glad though, that Hughes didn’t offer an identity for Jack the Ripper, who remains intriguingly anonymous.
A cover quote from Toby Litt suggests this novel is a brilliant cross between ‘David Mitchell and Hilary Mantel.’ Having read neither (shocking, I know!), I can’t confirm that, except I know enough about both authors to get why he suggests them.
The Countenance Divine is impossible to categorise except perhaps as ‘weird’ fiction and historical fantasy. It is a puzzle: one of the objects that travels through the ages within is a ‘practical rebus’ a wooden puzzle that can be assembled in many different combinations – and that seems to encapsulate it nicely. A intriguing debut that has kept me thinking about it. (8/10)
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Source: Publisher via Amazon Vine
Michael Hughes, The Countenance Divine, John Murray, August 11, 2016. Hardback, 304 pages.