Sunday, 31 January 2010

'Red Die - A Dorset Mystery', by Roger Norman

This is another beautifully produced book by The Sundial Press, and their first by a living author. It still fits their West Country theme, the action of the novel being tightly focused around the Dorset locality of Cerne Abbas, Minterne, Middlemarsh, Duntish and Buckland. The book is a hymn of love to the Dorset countryside, and imbues it with mystery and magic. There are a few imaginary locations mixed in with the real.

The story is set during the first world war, centred around a deserting soldier, Jack Yeoman, who has escaped from the horrors and madness of the trenches to his home base in Dorset. The story draws in a number of vividly drawn characters, who react to Jack’s situation and views in different ways. For me the highlight of the book is when most of them are drawn together in the homely warmth of the ‘Duntish Rings’ tavern for the night. They have sharp differences of opinion, but some of them are prepared to change their minds. Different aspects of English society are delineated (or rather a rural English society that has now passed).

The book has a rich tapestry of themes, touching on abstract ideas such as fate, chance, class, duty, conscience, magic, evil and loyalty. It also has concrete sensuous themes such as herbal potions, food, rain, mud, horses and so on. These intertwine physical and spiritual dimensions that are very Powysian in ethos. I had a strong feeling that the description of Louis Yeoman’s book-lined cottage was a direct depiction of the later life of John Cowper Powys.

The ‘Red die’ of the title is a reference to one of two dice that Jack carries with him to help him make decisions. Do the dice have magic powers? Do they have a Philip Pullmanesque ability to foretell and guide human actions? These issues are discussed at several points, but rightly not concluded. For me the correct attitude is summed up by the phrase in the book “Expect everything; predict nothing” – I hope I quoted that correctly.

Do not look for the mystery to be resolved. I found the end to be hurried and unsatisfactory (like ‘A Mill on the Floss’). Obscurely I felt the role of the mysterious ‘priest’ had not been fully thought through or integrated. I think the book could have benefited from greater length and exposition. I could not finally grasp the author’s intention in writing the book, and was left baffled by the last chapter.

John Vernon

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