Edition: Faber & Faber, 2016
Review number: 1508
Iain Pears' 2015 novel may seem to be something of a departure from his earlier work - if I'd been asked to read it blind and guess the author, I think I'd have picked David Mitchell. As both are among my favourite authors, this boded well for enjoying the book.
Arcadia is a complex narrative, with multiple strands and connections which involve time travel. The order of the chapters is (at least to begin with) not actually hugely important; indeed, it is sufficiently random that there is an app available to allow readers to restructure the book (which I haven't had the opportunity to try out). The complexity comes partly from the shortness of the chapters, but is mainly because they don't follow a chronological order as experienced by an individual character.
The structure is closely entwined with the form of time travel which Pears uses as the basis of the novel. Many time travel novels are built round an exploration of the grandfather paradox - how a time traveler in the past can influence the future to make it different from the one they came from - and this is no exception. It is, however, unusually fully thought through. In Arcadia, time travel is about manipulating probabilities. Only one universe can exist, but if that universe is no longer the most probable, then it disappears and a new sole universe not only come into being, but has always existed (except in the mind of the traveler). Pears is not absolutely consistent about this position, and there is debate among the characters about whether this is a true description of the universe. So far as I can remember, this is the only time travel novel I have read which is so ruthless about multiple timelines without making change impossible, though it perhaps has a predecessor in Clifford Simak's Time Quarry, which I was coincidentally reading at the same time.
There are three main universes in Arcadia. The central one is a version of Oxford in 1960, where a minor writer, one of the Inklings alongside Tolkien and Lewis, has written about his own fantasy world. This world itself is also a universe, deliberately brought into being in Professor Lytten's basement by Angela Meerson. She is a fugitive character from the third universe, a dystopian England where research into time travel is being carried out on a Hebridean island. A third major character is Rosie Wilson, a fifteen year old girl who becomes a friend of Professor Lytten and discovers Anterworld in the basement. A major theme, which I suspect may have been the original motivation for writing the book, is the relationship between Lytten and the world he imagined.
Clearly, Arcadia is extremely ambitious, more so than any of Pears' earlier novels. I found it challenging, partly because my reading of it wasn't helped by having to put it aside for days at a time on a number of occasions. In the end, I would have enjoyed it more if the narrative had been more traditional and linear; it felt as though the content was not quite interesting enough in itself to reward the effort of comprehending the structure. I think I'd have enjoyed it more at a time when I wasn't so distracted by other things. My rating: 6/10.