Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
All novels begin with an idea. After that, as the late Spike Milligan would say, the story really starts. A plan is required involving the plot, the plot-line and the various stages of development that illustrate this process. Then the narrative itself can commence. A competent writing style is not enough on its own and neither is the idea. Success comes from drawing all aspects of the plot and narrative together to pull the reader into the tale and keep them there without demanding that they chew carpet. In this latter stage before publication, editing helps a great deal in eliminating weaknesses in both plot and narrative. Often a great deal of re-writing becomes necessary. But then good art is more than just inspiration. It also demands a lot of hard work and hard thought.
Owen W. Knight has a great idea of a landscape missing from the Ordnance Survey map due to reasons of military intelligence. Those of us old enough to recall the Cold War know this was not all that uncommon in those days before Google Earth. Within the landscape of Templewood, farms are being used to develop experimental agriculture and to engage in sundry military schemes dreamed up by the powers-that-be. The proposition that this small region of the English countryside had been similarly used from the time of the Napoleonic wars is not that far-fetched either, given what has taken place around some coastal neighbourhoods in the south and east of this island. The idea of pitching this sense of local exclusivity back into the medieval period where the landscape was formed and changed by the Knights Templar is agreeably romantic for the purposes of fiction. However, some understanding needs to be expressed that the Knights Templar was a fairly simple, brutally violent, military religious order whose members were intent on gaining a place in heaven by slaughtering as many Moslems as possible before they too were overwhelmed. Mystical or even heretical they were not, which is why the Vatican promptly reinstated the order after its dissolution as its alleged sin against God was more connected to being wealthy at a time when the French king was stoney broke.
There are many excellent descriptive passages in this book, illustrating the beautiful, varied landscape of the Temple Walden area. The rivers, the canals, old mills, woods and fields are all the loving product of superb observation, clearly articulated. Yet something is missing from the entire tale. It completely fails to inspire. The reader is not drawn into the narrative. Maybe the plot is too complex? Perhaps events are not fully explored and the implications illustrated? For example, the destruction of a cricketing policeman beneath a steam-roller passes with little comment and no proper enquiry. It was just an inconvenience that took place. Oh dear!
There are some good passages. The discovery of an ancient manuscript in the village antique shop is quite fascinating, suggesting some experience of early notebooks accumulated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Then all we learn about the kind old man who showed these treasures to our heroes, Emily and Peter, is that his body is found dumped in the canal with his hands tied behind his back. Oh dear!
The suggestion is that these events are supposed to illustrate a reign of terror being inflicted in this strange neighbourhood, but where is the sense of public outrage? Any community suffering this degree of sustained oppression would be terrified but still possess a subdued rage that would be evident to even the casual observer. Such is implied but never addressed directly. If anything, it is explained away as an economic issue in that nobody wants to rock the boat for fear of losing jobs and income. Oh dear!
This novel screams lost opportunities. It could have been a great yarn. Even the publisher’s blurb shouts that this is where `1984 meets the Book of Revelations’. Sadly, not even one angel appears on a cloud blowing a trumpet before a telescreen. Jokingly, it seems more like a passage the editor deleted from Orwell’s `Animal Farm’ in which the horse, Boxer, who is supposed to represent the Russian people, draws a cart, heavily overloaded with rolls of utility wallpaper displaying flying pigs to a recycling shed for pulping. What a waste of four hundred and forty-seven pages, plus index. Oh dear!