Book Review

The English novelist Adam Foulds has written a poem. In many ways we should have seen it coming. His first novel, The Truth about These Strange Times (2007), is awash with so many lyrical flourishes that, while a thoroughly competent debut, one wonders if Foulds was entirely comfortable in the genre he had elected to work in. As if straitjacketed by it, prohibited by prose, throughout the book he plays with language to maximize descriptive effect, but also, it is tempting to believe, to afford him some poetic breathing room amid fiction’s stifling constraints: a tree is “wristy,” a chair makes a “cartilagey creaking sound,” a character is “feverish, muttery.”  At times he strives too hard, overdoing this nifty tinkering with silly neologisms (the protagonist, Howard, “looked away, invisibled himself”) or overcooking his metaphors (“a little girl . . . sitting halfway up the stairs, the small crockery of her forehead becoming vivid to her”). This mixed success is a typical malaise of first-time novelists­­—a blank page together with a free rein use of language being a too-good-to-be-true combination for new writers anxious to prove their creative talents. But while such splashy literary color can pass unnoticed in poetry—indeed is practically expected and so is subsumed by it—it sticks out in novels, jarring on the page. Perhaps a certain expedience prompted Foulds to get a novel under his belt first. Fiction is still the way in for writers, and poetry doesn’t pay the bills. But for all its faults, we should be thankful for The Truth About These Strange Times because it clearly gave Foulds the clout and the latitude to embark on a poem for his next project.

The Broken Word is at first glance not a complete change of artistic tack. It is a narrative poem and so in verse the closest cousin to the novel. But Foulds is not playing it safe, because as a poetic form it is one of the hardest to pull off. The poet cannot rely purely on the usual musical charms of prosody and language; in addition he must emplace a current in which to snare the reader and propel him forward, a current that consists of the two chief requisites of fiction, namely plot and character. Foulds sets himself a doubly difficult task by setting his poem in the 1950s, in both Kenya and England, seeing as it is “An Epic Poem of the British Empire in Kenya, and the Mau Mau Uprising Against It.” The inclusion of this subtitle deliberately aligns The Broken Word with its great literary epic and mock-epic antecedents, a move which is audacious but, as we quickly discover, also apt.

Foulds begins with a train journey. He subtly inserts telltale language which might betray our location: we are “among the lion-coloured slums” and inhaling a “cattery stink”; all around, people are “posting themselves, / third class, into the train windows or dropping / carefully onto wide, unfeeling feet.” The waiter onboard tells Jenkins that there is another Englishman on the train, a boy. We meet Tom, returning to his family’s African farm for his final summer before beginning university back in England. Through Jenkins, both Tom and the reader are apprised of the desperate situation: the natives are rising up and attacking the settlers. What’s more, the dispossessed Kikuyu are “oathing” in their quest to oust the occupying British—“The ceremonies, the pledges: / join or your throat cut. / Or worse.”

It isn’t long before Foulds takes over to inform us of what is “worse.” There is a short scene in which two elderly British men are butchered by their servants. Foulds alerts us to “the chit chit of panga blades / into Frank’s back” followed by Charles who “swivelled in his leakage / and lay forwards / holding the two parts together.” After this we get retaliation from the British. Foulds shuns partisanship by positioning himself in the middle—less judge and more observer, eyeing the violence he creates and, crucially, like any good writer, never taking the moral high ground. He begins by ushering us into the gentlemen’s bar of the East Highlands Country Club, complete with cigar smoke and “creaking maturity of wood and leather.” In these plush colonial surroundings, Tom sits “for the first time / on the glimpsed adult furniture” and listens to his father’s introductions to his cronies. Again, Foulds teaches us through his characters, and here Tom learns that he should join the Home Guard and some of these “gentlemen” in the hunt to avenge this “ferocious carve-up.” “Bag me a brace,” a character says, extending the hunt imagery. Tom’s father tells him “it’s time, I’m afraid, you know, to be a man and all that.” And so begins Tom’s baptism by fire. He kills his first man—“Just like in a Western: the attacking Indian”—and the casual ease with which he pulls the trigger signals an abrupt and unthinking end of innocence.

As the stakes are upped to quell the chaos, Foulds ups the violence. In doing so he highlights his main strength, the ability to depict brutality effectively but also, amazingly, poetically. There is little beauty in his stark detailing, nor should there be. Instead he transforms reportage into poetry with carefully wrought phrases and singular images. Unlike some war poetry, he doesn’t labor his point and knows exactly when to pan out. Each vivid imagining is made up of a mere sprinkling of short, sharp, intensely memorable words. A case in point is a scene in which Prior, one of Jenkins’ men, rapes a local girl. “No harm done,” he tells her after Foulds has briskly, pungently, and above all impartially catalogued his crime. “Good girl.” Tom is later entrusted with guarding groups of prisoners, and, after he has “grown a connoisseur of beatings,” humiliations, and casual killings, he hardens some more into a compassionless automaton and eventually joins in, often simply to assuage his boredom. But as Foulds unleashes more violence, there are fitful lapses into the prosaic, with imagery that smoulders before us but doesn’t fully ignite: “Tom loved to see them withstand their punishment, / their heads whipped around / like wildflowers in a breeze.”

At other times he is wincingly spot-on. Tom sinks deeper, assimilating himself into the savagery, and Foulds is compelled to match this with unflinching flashes of cruelty:

In his rage, he forgot his training
and beat him
not with the butt but the barrel of his gun.
He swung and swung
across the breaking stave
of the man’s forearms and collar bone
until it seemed the prisoner shivered
and gradually fell asleep,
but Tom, Tom had too much energy and carried on.

Although Tom does not know when to stop, his creator does. Just when the unremitting violence threatens to overwhelm the whole poem (mutilated men are “heavily edited”)—indeed, when it threatens to become the poem—Foulds gently breaks off and has Tom return home to enjoy tea and biscuits with his family. It is a perfectly contained scene, all starchy British manners and clipped vowels. It is also sedate and controlled, giving us the polar opposite of the mayhem that has preceded it. “You’re a man now,” Tom’s father tells him, ignorant of the acts his son has committed to make that transition. Foulds proves that he can illustrate ugliness, but he can also expertly conceal it. Tom sips his tea and we lose trace of his dark side, numbed by a “lawyerly, factual, frangible calm.” But in the end it is too much for Tom. The tension stretches too tautly and reaches a snapping point; he stands and throws his teacup at the wall, watching it smash “into a thousand tiny white knives and powder.”

When he takes this rage back with him to England and university, we realize he has been corrupted by the violence to such a degree that it now contaminates him. He has ventured into his own private heart of darkness but there is no light at the other end. He fantasizes about beating his tutor to death, “leaking / dinges in his skull.” He meets and falls for Eleanor, “a definite woman,” but he is too impatient and heavy-handed during their caresses: “Tom. Please be nice,” she implores. “I am being nice” is his reply, but the reader remains skeptical, doubting that he can ever be nice again. Foulds offers hope for him in the closing pages, but even if Eleanor grants him a second chance, we are left wondering whether her love is strong enough to purify that contamination. Can her “definite” womanhood compensate for and ultimately repair this morally fractured man?

In The Truth About These Strange Times Foulds beautifully encapsulates the destructive power of outside forces on the individual with the caveat “the world abrades your finesse away.” The Broken Word deals with turpitude corroding on a larger scale—Tom’s moral reasoning not just abraded but cleanly eroded—and powerful enough to afflict both sides in a conflict. Foulds therefore assigns himself a far bigger canvas to work on, progressing from Howard in his novel to civilization in general in his poem. Interestingly, in his second novel, The Quickening Maze (2009), he downsizes to some extent by dealing with the travails of a small community; on the other hand, he matches The Broken Word in scope by opting to portray life in a lunatic asylum in 1840s England. Madness, not violence, will decay the human spirit. Furthermore, the novel features two real poets, Tennyson and John Clare, as characters. Thus Foulds extends his considerable range and enthrals us again by ingeniously intertwining the two worlds of poetry and prose.

There are few young writers working today who can juggle genres, gliding ambidextrously from one form to another. Adam Foulds is one of them, making him one to watch. While he is adept at writing novels and poems, for my money his real aptitude is for the latter, and he deserves credit for patterning his prose with poetic touches that swing from the visceral to the beautiful. In The Quickening Maze we hear of a character who arrives stealthily, “unannounced, and full of messages about himself, all his little flags flying.” Foulds has emerged on the literary scene in much the same way, unobtrusively, but with his talent unavoidably displayed, fluttering busily like those little flags.

About the Reviewer

Malcolm Forbes is a teacher and freelance essayist and reviewer. His work has appeared in Open Letters Monthly, Quadrant, Pleiades, The Montreal Review, and Cerise Press. Born in Edinburgh, he is currently based in Berlin.