Review of ‘First Light’ by Peter Ackroyd and ‘Motherland’ by Timothy O’Grady

26th May 2014

‘First Light’ by Peter Ackroyd, 1989, Abacus, 328 pp. ISBN O-349-10132-9 (pbk)
‘Motherland’ by Timothy O’Grady, 1989, Picador, 230 pp. ISBN 0-330-31198-0 (pbk)

Review by Tony Smith

Politicians seem to enjoy reading political thrillers, and businessmen’ are the prime buyers of Wall Street pulp, so it is just possible that archaeologists might find relaxation in the adventures of Indiana Jones and other ‘colleagues’. There is probably some sort of catharsis in these works. They broaden the narrow professional horizons, add glamour to the calling, and even encourage practitioners to think that their science might actually be appreciated in the ‘lay’ community. So, two recent works of fiction may emerge as recommended reading for professionals who want to know how outsiders perceive their digging work. And in any case, these books may turn out to be the most entertaining if not the most significant discoveries of the year.

Peter Ackroyd’s First Light adds to the author’s established reputation as a writer of historical curiosities which dabble in the dysjunction of time. Hawksmoor dealt with architecture and the occult, and Chatterton with the ghosts of literature. First Light speculates about the very fabric of the universe and the properties of time, and especially about the role of movement in their relationship.

In a neat juxtaposition, Ackroyd plays with the possibilities of an astrophysicist whose body thinks it is a supernova, an archaeologist who fears his discoveries and a retired Vaudevillian who discovers the cottage and the earthy rural family from which he was adopted as a child.

The three, or at least their concerns are thrown together when the archaeologist Mark Clare begins a dig in a tumulus in the field of Farmer Mint of Pilgrin Valley. The good farmer and his son are but two of the delightful characters strewn throughout the book, and their meetings with the cynical Evangeline Tupper (of the Department) and her friend and ‘Assistant’ lighten the dark, brooding forces that lurk behind most of Ackroyd’s pages.

The dig is of more than passing interest to astronomer Damian Fall, because Pilgrin Valley is stone country. Here, prehistoric astronomers calculated the orbits of the very stars studied by today’s Druids, stars such as Aldebaran, which sounds suspiciously like ‘the old barren one’. Ironically, Mark Clare’s wife despairs of being able to bear or even to adopt a child. Her fate mirrors that of the astronomer’s star and indeed, of the silent character who plies the threads together.

First Light is full of mystery which is undone rather than solved. The archaeologist, in attempting to go back in time, immerses him self forever in his subject and makes changes which can never be undone. Questions are raised about whether the cost is too great. While we would usually argue that the knowledge justifies the destruction, Mark Clare lacks confidence that history will judge him favourably. These strains create an interesting climax, which defies description to anyone who has not followed the separate trails.

Motherland is an extraordinary first novel by Timothy O’Grady. Although the author begins by seeking his disappeared mother, the main character is the Irish land and his Celtic ancestry: and if that sounds like it should be two characters, this is not a distinction which O’Grady finds useful. Australian archaeologists who enjoy reading Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines will understand this view.

In many respects, Motherland may appeal more to geneticists than to archaeologists, but the key to the journey and the search are found in the eventual discovery of the Synnott family’s ancestral home. More particularly, as the latest Synnott searches for his mother, he conducts a frantic excavation while under fire from troops and helicopters. And it is the means of his escape from this predicament which gives the book ns wonderful metaphorical title.

Again, there is a fascination with time involved in this tale, because the Synnott line has always contained clairvoyants and visionaries. Accounts of medieval battle, sorcery and sexual imperative produce an intriguing and often moving glimpse of a compressed past – perhaps a kind of near-death experience.

But whether or not the reader associates so closely with the narrator, the questions posed in the book are unavoidable. How much of the past do we imagine, and how far is our knowledge restricted by the narrowness of our imaginations? To what extent do we assume modernity when making our estimations? Is it a circular illogicality to attempt to understand the present by projecting forward from the past?

In both of these novels, there is a skilful evocation of the adventure of burrowing deeper. Both raise ethical questions which will be appreciated by those who dig and who have pondered the ethics of their tasks. And while neither intends a critical examination of archaeology per se, they do place the science into very challenging perspective.

Archaeologists may not find First Light or Motherland to be the kind of harmless diversions that Indiana Jones might provide. They should, however, be delighted to discover such powerful notions about their science expressed in compelling fiction.

Smith, T.
Review of ‘First Light’ by Peter Ackroyd and ‘Motherland’ by Timothy O’Grady
June 1992
Book Reviews
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