Dave Hutchinson's first novel The Villages follows recent university graduate and underachiever Tim Ramsay as he struggles to find meaning, motivation, self-respect and love in contemporary London. Tim is a somewhat morose and unambitious individual, left behind in a world when his peers outgrow their collegiate lifestyle and take wives and promising jobs. With few options, he answers an ad for a job as researcher for an independent film company. The company, Lonesome Charlie Productions, turns out to be little more than the pet project of a penny-pinching crackpot, a man named Harry Dean who has been obsessed with the London Blitz since childhood. Though he has no previous film experience (and no demonstrable talent for it), Harry is piecing together a patchwork documentary on the Blitz from old footage and survivor accounts.
Underpaid and underappreciated, Tim goes to work for Harry, enduring the abuse and absurdity of the job out of (a) desperation and (b) a desire to woo Lonesome Charlie's only other employee, a beautiful Polish girl named Sophie. But, while on a trip to Poland to purchase a bit of Blitz footage, Tim discovers a bizarre manuscript with a rather incredible hypothesis -- that occurrences of extreme violence create ruptures in time, little pools and eddies where events are stuck in a constant replay. Certain people in the know have the capacity to enter and exit these fractures, called "villages", popping between the violent memories of history. But while it is possible to interact, and even die, in the villages, it is impossible to affect the course of history. Once the scene has played out, the tape running its course, everything resets and begins anew.
At first Tim is a disbeliever in this incredible theory, but when Harry and Sophie mysteriously disappear leaving him in charge of Lonesome Charlie and its debts, he takes it upon himself to keep on keeping on. Then he finds evidence that they have disappeared into the past, and he sets out to uncover the secret of travelling into villages in the hope of finding the woman he loves. Along the way, he learns something that, while not exactly what one would call "responsibility" in the normal sense, might pass for it in his terms. The book is, inter alia, a marvelous portrayal of what it is like to be 23, out of school, and unmotivated in a depressed job market.
If the novel has a weakness it is that its sciencefictional elements are really tangential to the story being told. The supernatural doesn't intrude upon our narrative at all until the novel is almost halfway done, and only the last quarter sees our protagonist make use of its central conceit. And, given that The Villages casts the Blitz as its instigating set piece, it is problematic that the novel's resolution occurs elsewhere -- in a fire in Poland. But these are particulars of plot in a novel that succeeds best on the levels of character and scenework. The Villages is a fun read, meandering along at a casual pace, full of Hutchinson's characteristically droll charm and inspired prose. He paints a very vivid and amusing picture of life both in London and Poland, with enough colourful characters to keep you engaged till you reach the novel's final, and somewhat sardonic, punchline.
Review by Lou Anders.
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© Lou Anders 7 September 2002