‘Max Gate’ is a novel by Damien Wilkins, published by Aardvark Bureau. It is a first-person account of the days before and after author Thomas Hardy’s death, punctuated by various memories of the author and his first wife, Emma.
I really liked the main themes of the novel: practicality versus romanticism, and the idea of the myth of the author versus the author as a living, breathing man. Unlike some of the other reviews I’ve read, I loved the fact that the reader only encounters Hardy through memories – it creates great ambiguity about who exactly he is, and who, in some sense, he belongs to. The family? The nation? No one?
The novel was split into three main parts. Each part has various montages of the animals and scenery surrounding Max Gate which separate the various memories. I thought this was done very well. The novel was also full of lovely little moments, mainly about Hardy and his love for animals and nature. Wilkins has obviously done a great deal of research, and it shows.
I did have some quibbles with the novel, however. I think it would have benefitted from being written in third person. We experience the novel through servant-girl Nell’s eyes, but she has very little to do with the main events, and often is not actually present in the conversations she reports (or, if she is, we have no idea why). An interesting first-person perspective would perhaps have been Florence, Hardy’s current wife, who is portrayed as an extremely slippery and interesting character. There is some hint at Nell as an unreliable narrator in the third part of the novel, but it could have been taken much further than it was. There was also some inconsistency with the use of vernacular – I’m a bit of a nit-pick about that sort of thing, so it did bother me.
The quality of the writing itself also improved as the novel went on – I was particularly impressed with a section in part 2, in which Nell remembers a picnic, which then leads into a story about Hardy and his first wife. I thought that this was possibly the best-written part of the novel, as the flow between between memory and story and poetry is seamless.
Overall, I think this is a charming novel that will appeal to those who are intrigued by literature and authors, and who are in the mood for a gentle and meandering read.
‘Max Gate’ will be published in the UK on June 6 2016.