Sometimes you have to stick your hand up and here we go.
I hereby award This Thing of Darkness the title of my best book ever.
For sheer meatiness, immersion, characterisation, research, story telling, and adventure. For the immensity of history involved. For the reach of these lives and the illumination of their development over the years and the way things build and unravel – all understandable in retrospect but so uncertain and risky at the time. For all the surrounding stuff that comes with historical fiction and the extraordinary passing detail. For the way it made me re-evaluate my life and life in this century generally. For the way it made me feel.
And they gave the Booker that year to The Sea, the short-sighted fools! This Thing of Darkness was Thompson’s first and only novel; he died a few months later at the age of 45 of lung cancer (though he wasn’t a smoker). His earlier life was as a master of comedy at the BBC: a creator of Have I got News For You; and contributor to Never Mind the Buzzcocks; Da Ali G Show; They Think It’s All Over, Harry Enfield and Chums, Monkey Dust and The 11 O’clock Show. All of which indicates a full-life immersion in edgy, modern piss-taking so where did Darkness come from? I had a friend who interviewed for the BBC. She was funny and erudite and extremely well educated in the wide-and-deep competitive English way and it boggled me just how smart you have to be to get a foot in the door of the Beeb. So I shouldn’t be surprised that a BBC comedian can write a serious historic novel that seems to have demanded a lifetime of study. Too young to die but what a full life, and a glorious legacy to leave.
I’m not going to do a proper review here because the impact this book had on me would need pages and there are so many good reviews of it out there already. Briefly, it’s the story of Robert FitzRoy, an exceptionally bright young aristo with a moral compass that points unwaveringly towards the good bits of God (like humanity and kindness) but living in the early 1800s where the path to humanity and kindness was (as it still is) strewn with false assumptions. In comes young Charles Darwin, chosen as companion to Captain FitzRoy on the long, lonely voyages charting Tierra del Fuego. They’re great friends of similar intellect and do each other a world of good but fall out over God’s creation (the flood, the origin of humans etc), and their different assumptions as Darwin grows in popularity and FitzRoy, over-burdened with moral and physical responsibilities to an absurd degree, slips away in small inevitable steps. “This thing of darkness” visits FitzRoy like a periodic haunting and is terrifying.
Darwin and the naturalists come out of the story well. FitzRoy is flawed but brilliant. It’s the English Establishment, that self-serving pack of inbred bastards feeding the wolves, who are the villains of this story.
This Thing of Darkness is historical fiction but the heavy guts of it is true.
Wonderful book. Read it twice.
I should probably issue a warning as I read this book on kindle and it took me weeks, I thought because I was so engrossed with taking notes and re-reading bits, but no, the paperback arrived this morning and the thing is enormous, as the actress said to the bishop. A veritable doorstop — 750 pages of tightly packed text with small margins. Commit a good couple of months of your life to Harry. You won’t regret it.