Anyone who has ever yearned to escape Britain and immerse themselves in the healing countryside of la France profonde had better not read Adam Thorpe’s new novel. Or perhaps they should, and instead of envying former compatriots who have leapt the Channel, enjoy a frisson of gratitude for the comfortable familiarity of our land of constant drizzle, slow trains and strong tea on tap.
The title is taken from “the green mantle of the standing pool” spoken of in King Lear, a superficial calm beneath which all manner of foul things fermented. As it happens, there is just such a pool in the Languedoc farmhouse which two unworldly academics, the historians Nick and Sarah Mallinson, have rented for a six-month sabbatical. When they arrive there from their cramped Cambridge terrace, with their three young daughters in tow, the Mallinsons have high hopes of becoming culturally enriched and spiritually rested. Instead, however, their chosen slice of rural France is teeming with oddities and violent bullies: if there is a Shakespeare quotation that infuses the action, it derives not from Lear but Macbeth: “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.”
The pricking, to the author’s credit, is masterfully maintained for a large proportion of the book, as the wickedness gently circles closer. Thorpe is highly skilled at manipulating the approach and partial retreat of unease, the almost imperceptible massing of bad karma. It starts with the couple who own the house, the brash husband of whom, Alan, is an American antiques dealer, enriched by the looting of antiquities from Iraq and sacred tribal masks, some of which are hidden in the holiday home.