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This review is taken from PN Review 195, Volume 37 Number 1, September - October 2010.

KNOWING THE UNKNOWABLE SAM ADAMS, Prichard’s Nose (Y Lolfa) £9.95

There’s a sub-genre of historical fiction intercutting historical narrative with another story set in the present. The literary high- water mark is probably A.S. Byatt’s Possession, juxtaposing a modern literary detective-cum-love story with the life of fictional Victorian poet Randolf Henry Ash. A curious effect of this novel is that the ‘present’ story, told in heavily plotted detective story mode, becomes greatly less real than Ash’s world, conveyed at first in researched fragments, and gradually more vividly and fully, until we enter utterly private experience. Paradoxically, the present is less convincingly conveyed in the conventions of ‘traditional’ fiction while the Victorian past is rendered more powerfully by a multiplicity of techniques that amounts to a kind of disguised modernism.

Veteran poet and critic Sam Adams has chosen this difficult, promising genre for his first novel. Prichard’s Nose is engaging, smoothly written, and powerfully evokes a life lived at the tail of the eighteenth and through the early decades of the nineteenth centuries in rural Wales and Regency London. The double narrative structure does also bring problems of balance and pace.

In a sense, Adams takes on a greater level of difficulty than Possession: unlike Ash, Thomas Prichard was a real man, and Adams has built this novel on his own painstaking research into a remarkable figure. The novel parallels the story of Martin Jenkins, a down-at-heel would-be author recovering from a failed marriage, with what he discovers in his researches into Prichard, a lonely poetaster ...
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