The month in books

March is a big month for fiction, but it’s a history book that steals the show
February 22, 2012

March, with its white skies and false starts, is a month that inspires escapism. Conveniently, it is also the height of fiction season. The idea, traditionally, is that this is the time of year that readers want to lose themselves in exotic tales, and that if published now, these tales will hit the bestseller lists around about July—the month when swathes of the population purchase a novel or two for their holidays (or download 100 free classics onto their Kindle, as the case may now be).


Despite the plethora of “dazzling” debuts on this year’s spring lists, the two novels reviewed here—both enticingly escapist in their own way—are by seasoned third-timers. Tom Bullough’s previous works, The Claude Glass and A were set in the Welsh borders. In Konstantin (Viking, £12.99) however, Bullough transports us to the bitter Russian winter of 1867, to tell the re-imagined life story of the scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

“Kostya” is ten years old when we meet him, on his way to a frozen forest near his hometown of Ryazan, on the banks of the Oka River in central Russia. When he returns home he falls ill with scarlet fever, leaving him deaf and vulnerable. Kostya develops into a sensitive soul, teased by his classmates, mollycoddled by his mother, who calls him “Little Bird,” and dismissed by his taciturn father, who despairs of his son’s obsession with building “toys.” But what his father cannot yet grasp is that Kostya is destined to become a pioneer of astronautic theory. We see the little bird’s progression as he flies the nest to grubby Moscow where, under the wing of a kindly librarian at the Chertkovsky Library, he is encouraged to renounce earthly pleasures in favour of a life dedicated to science—a promise he finds he can’t keep when he returns as a teacher to Ryazan.

This is a charming novel, sensitively told, but it ends on a rather abrupt note: we leave Konstantin in the prime of life, happily married with a young child, and skip a century to a tacked-on chapter detailing Alexey Arkhipovich Leonov’s famous 1965 space walk. The link is reasonably self-evident, but this reader, for one, came away feeling slightly cheated. Another coming-of-age novel, Arcadia (Heinemann £16.99), by American author Lauren Groff features a similarly fragile young creature, except the trials young Bit faces are thanks to his parents’ hippy idealism. It is of course the 1960s, and Bit and his parents live in a commune in the grounds of a decaying mansion, Arcadia House, in upstate New York. The commune is united by a single utopian goal—to renovate and inhabit Arcadia, and live peacefully off the surrounding land. Despite Bit’s naive love of the only life he knows, it’s clear that even before it has been built, the dream is crumbling at the edges: signs of hypocrisy, inequality, abuse and decay are rife.

Groff is deft at evoking the suffocating realities of communal living—the lack of privacy and the accompanying human stench; the individual moments of doubt swiftly followed by guilt; and the ever-growing array of hangers on, acid heads and no-hopers—parasites set on squeezing the commune dry. At times, however, the novel can feel somewhat claustrophobic and unrelenting—it is a relief when Bit finally cuts the umbilical cord and heads to the bright lights of the city.


After these two novels, I found myself glad to bury my nose into a solid non-fiction tome. Opium: Reality’s Dark Dream, (Yale University Press £25) by Thomas Dormandy, is that rare thing: both an extraordinary work of scholarship and a rip-roaring read. Dormandy, a consultant chemical pathologist and retired professor, is also author of two other books on the subject of drugs and disease The White Death: A History of Tuberculosis (1998) and The Worst of Evils: The Fight Against Pain (2006). In this new book, he persuades us that the history of opium is so tied up with the history of civilisation that one cannot be told without the other. Dormandy begins by studying the earliest experimentations with the healing powers of the white poppy in Stone Age societies, and moves on to the documented use of poppy juice in Ancient Egypt for a wide range of ailments from snake bites to gynaeological complaints, through the opium wars, the romantic period, the invention of morphine and its later by-product heroin, to the League of Nation’s attempts to quash drug-trafficking and the present-day opium trade in Afghanistan. It seems there was barely a time when opium—the world’s most effective painkiller and most addictive drug—wasn’t prevalent in some corner of the world.

Not only does Dormandy give us a masterly opium-oriented recap on the major events in history over the past few millennia, but he also spoils us with anecdote-worthy details. In the Roman empire, for example, “opium was widely consumed as wine,” while in the early Christian era it “began to appear on coins and ornamental seals.” Fast forward to 19th-century England, in particular to the eastern lowlands of the country, known at the time as “The Kingdom of the Poppy,” and we discover that beer was freely mixed with opium and that “in the cathedral city of Ely… a coin laid on the counter meant only one thing.”


Similarly wide-ranging, although somewhat more rambling, is Tristan Gooley’s The Natural Explorer (Sceptre, £16.99). Gooley, also author of The Natural Navigator, has a particular mission: to encourage a return to golden age of exploration. “It is time,” he states, “to forge a new explorer by reaching back to the many who had the spirit in years gone by and [reaching] out to the few who have held on to it.” Divided into chapters such as “The Senses,” “the Plants,” “The Weather,” and “Companions,” The Natural Explorer takes us on a multi-sensory, literary journey intent on heightening awareness of our surroundings. An ambitious combination of Gooley’s own insights and those of countless other writers, explorers and philosophers, this is serious armchair adventuring. Who says non-fiction can’t be escapist too?