Bethan Tachwedd reviews the Restoration tale of Welsh tailor Arise Evans in The Book of the Needle by Matthew Francis.
The Book Of The Needle by Matthew Francis is the tale of Arise Evans, a Welsh tailor living in England during, and immediately after, the time of the English Civil War. He is far from home, and has a lot to talk about. The year is 1660, Charles II is newly restored to the throne, and Arise Evans, not just a tailor, but a prophet and former best-selling author, sits down in his London home to commence work on his new tome. But, to his publisher’s chagrin, it is not in the genre in which he has previously enjoyed success. During the English Civil War period, his raison d’etre was prophesying certain doom for the country if the monarchy was not restored; now it has been, he feels his prophesying days are behind him. For Arise, this reductive societal reboot is the start of a brave new world (again).
The decision to give each chapter its own name, rather than a number, is interesting. The book opens with ‘The Needle Vindicated From Holy Writ’ and moves on to ‘An Old Harbinger Set Aflutter’ and then ‘A Prodigal Received With Soup And Reproaches’; on the one hand it could be a reflection, or perhaps a satire, of Arise’s self-importance. Alternatively, it could be a nod towards the classic works of English language literature from this time period. Indeed, it does bring to mind a sense of the absurd, rampaging egotism, and the formality of the era that exists in, say, Fielding’s Tom Jones. Similarly, the highly stylized prose feels at odds with contemporary literature. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and as with the chapter headings, could certainly be an intentional throwback to classic works.
The first person narrative succeeds in generating an energy that some readers will enjoy; the drive to Arise’s perpetual monologue that often borderlines on the manic helps to create, and maintain, the frantic pace. This will not be to every reader’s taste, however. It could be that this is a distraction, or perhaps an irritant; the pace throughout remains unrelentingly immutable.
Francis is successful in creating a character vibrant enough to keep even the most sceptical reader engaged: an historical savant with a penchant for both self-regard and self-denial. As Arise takes the reader on his personal journey, the reader will laugh at his asides and social faux pas. On occasion, however, it was unclear whether the humour was entirely intentional, or more specifically whether Francis wanted us to laugh at or with Arise. This brought to mind the image of a seventeenth century Frank Spencer, albeit minus the beret; but equally, Francis may have had Sir John Falstaff in mind. This difficulty of interpretation makes for problematic reading, the end result being that a certain degree of pathos is lost in the space between the lines. Similarly, having to re-read passages to check for authorial intent is not conducive for a fun read (which is certainly how it has been marketed).
Matthew Francis is a respected poet and academic, and rightly so; his poetry continues to be published to positive reviews, Muscovy (Faber, 2013), whereas his only other novel Whom (Bloomsbury, 1989) is an overlooked and eerily portentous satire. This could be part of the problem with The Book Of The Needle. As has already been mentioned, the beauty of the language and the craft involved in assembling it is evident. It is certainly poetic. Additionally, the painstaking and relentless assembly of the text – often in eye-wateringly merciless large blocks of text – is perfectly formed and rhythmically sound. Whilst this may mirror the writing of the period in which the novel is set, it jars with the contemporary aesthetic of white spaces and sympathetic line spacing.
Ultimately, The Book Of The Needle presents the reader with a high concept piece of historical fiction that makes no attempt to pander to modern day literary tastes. This is in theory acceptable, however the reader will almost always feel aware that they are existing inside a construct, or experiment, as opposed to a fully realised world. It is interesting that this may be largely down to Francis’ desire to produce something absolutely authentic to the period in which it is set; had he relaxed his desire to do this, then perhaps The Book Of The Needle may have in fact delivered a more real experience.
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