Thursday, 2 March 2017

I Heard That - Arcadia by Lauren Groff

While some might argue that Arcadia is a bit lush and really quite sentimental, (as a lover of Charles Dickens, I'm obviously more than prepared to overlook sentimentality), those criticisms should not overshadow the gifts Lauren Groff displays in this book.  Her story concerns Bit, the first child born in a commune called Arcadia, which is set up in the 1970s by a group of idealistic young Americans, headed by a guru figure who, like most guru figures, turns out to be a careless egoist.

Groff traces Bit's story from childhood to middle age and in the process conjures up a huge cast of characters in a landscape that comes to life vividly in the reader/listener's mind. It becomes clear that, although most of the commune's founders act from the best of intentions, motivated by idealism and goodwill, good intentions are not enough and parents, however well-intentioned, may harm their children through their own idealism. All the same, Groff's tale does not set out to moralise but simply recounts the events as they happen. It is I suppose fiction as a slice of life.

Eventually, the commune collapses and many of Bit's contemporaries spin out into the wider world in various states of damage. Bit too must make his way beyond the confines of the landscape where he has grown up and his existence thereafter is defined to some extent by a yearning for that earlier way of life.

People come and go, some age and die, others vanish, a new generation is born. Nothing astonishing happens and yet the novel is never boring. It is the engrossing depth of Groff's imagined world - in particular, the rich variety of characters she has invented - that holds the attention. It is a mark of her achievement that I find myself missing the company of the people her novel introduced me to, now that I have finished the book

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