I’d heard a lot about The Countenance Divine, and so I was thrilled to get an ARC through from John Murray, via Bookbridgr.
It opens in 1999, as computer programmer Chris works to help companies to solve the Millennium Bug, and tries to attract the attentions of the enigmatic and somewhat troubled Lucy Mills, who he’s determined to charm.
The novel then moves back in time to 1888, and murders of five prostitutes in Whitechapel and is told through a series of letters from the infamous “Ripper”.
The third section focuses on William Blake, who is working on The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, following a prophetic vision in 1777.
In 1666, Thomas Allgood is hired to spy on poet John Milton as he works on his magnum opus Paradise Lost, shortly before the great fire of London.
The novel moves back and forth between these characters, to which Hughes has given very distinct voices. I did find that certain sections were easier to follow than others. Thomas Allgood’s account of his days spent spying on John Milton was particularly heavy going, although it did come across as authentic for the time in which it’s set. Chris’s sections and the ‘From Hell’ letters of Jack the Ripper were, for me, the easiest sections to get on with, although in the case of the letters, not always entirely pleasant reading, given the graphic detail with which Jack describes his actions.
This is a relatively short novel that packs in a lot over its 300 or so pages, and it isn’t a novel that answers all of the questions that it raises. Rather, it’s one for the reader (this reader, at least) to ponder on afterwards. Some connections between the various characters and their stories are obvious, others less so. Having finished it a couple of days ago, I find that I’m still thinking about it – and perhaps eking out a little more understanding as I do so. I do wonder if I’d have gotten more out of it if I was more familiar with the works of Blake and Milton – there are references to their works that may add a little extra colour to the novel, although I’m sure it’s not essential.
The Countenance Divine is an incredibly complex multi-layered novel that is stylistically similar to Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas with its interwoven stories and themes, and is an incredibly ambitious debut.
The Countenance Divine was published on 11 August by John Murray – many thanks to the publisher for the ARC.