In 1664 New Amsterdam, a message foretelling of a visitor he doesn’t look forward to brings the past rushing back to mind for Jan Brunt – a past he wished he could leave behind. The majority of the book is a large flashback to the time when he left Holland for the Norfolk Broads, and was tasked with draining the fens and meres and making everything from Ely to the coast fully habitable. We soon learn he thinks of this job now with less favour – is it because he sees that and the current divvying up of the Americas as in the same colonialist spirit; is it because he was doing so under the auspices of Cromwell and using Irish POWs as slave labour; or is it more important that while working in the fens he fell in love with a ‘lowlander’ – one of the women who preferred to live in their watery world without outside interference?
This was a pleasingly rich novel, giving us many glimpses into worlds previously unseen. I had hardly read of the early days of New York, when Manhattan was still called something else, and both Long and Statten Islands bore their Dutch names. But I certainly had not had such an evocative visit to the Broads since the days of Graham Swift’s Waterland, and certainly never felt this close to the time of their reclamation from the seas. The whole seemed supremely researched, as the author’s several non-fiction volumes before now might suggest, but never felt overly determined to prove that.
Stylistically, I never really thought that this was the testimony of a character writing in the time of Pepys, but think only that the book was better for that. Still, I found the narrator a little less than perfect – he seemed a little too repetitive, and in evoking theological thoughts to try and explain his new love with Eliza the fenlander, a little too flowery. More importantly, however, was the plotting itself, which was fine. The mix of the romance with the industry of work in the Broads, and the occasional visit back to the colonies, will surely prove most memorable. A late alteration to proceedings made me work to find favour with it more than I would have wished, but this is still well worth exploring.
John Lloyd 4/4
The Great Level by Stella Tillyard
Chatto & Windus 9780701183196 hbk Jul 2018