Arcadia by Lauren Groff

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Arcadia by Lauren Groff

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: An exquisite book to treasure. The writing, the characters, the location are excellent and I WANT to read it again. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: April 2012
Publisher: William Heinemann
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0434019625

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Back in the seventies a group of idealists (well, hippies) founded a commune in the grounds of Arcadia House, a decaying mansion in western New York State. In the early days the renovation of the house and the funding of the commune was hopeful, energising - the American dream encapsulated in bricks, crops and hard work - but as with many, if not most, such enterprises it was not to last. Power corrupted, personalities changed and commitment waivered. We see the commune and the people who made it through the early, hard-working days to its precarious peak and into its inevitable decline.

That sounds rather like a history, but we see the story through the eyes of Bit, the tiny boy born soon after the commune was created. He's the son of Hannah, a baker for the commune and Abe, a master carpenter and the driving force behind the renovation of Arcadia House. There's a little bit of an edge between Abe and Handy, a musician and the group's initial, charismatic leader, but much of it is smoothed out by Astrid, a midwife and Handy's wife. Bit is aware of the tensions but he's deeply happy in the agrarian life of the community. He's known no other - and it's a pull which will stay with him throughout his life.

The children form a tight group but Bit is drawn to Helle, the troubled daughter of Handy and Astrid. In other circumstances you might call her wayward but the commune has its own laws and has regard to 'what shouldn't be against the law', such as growing drugs for sale. Some sexual partnerships are stable and exclusive, but many are not. It's a constantly-mutating background to Bit's life, which is rich in parental love but poverty-stricken and mal-nourished in others.

I almost didn't read this book. I glanced at the cover and the sprite-like child said 'fantasy' - it was chance which made me look more closely, but once I did, I was hooked. The world of Arcadia is perfectly-imagined and played out on the page with little explanation and no need for it. I'd no need either for a map - I could walk the paths, swim in the pond and move through the various buildings. It's world-building of a quality which you find in the very best of science fiction.

It's character- rather than plot-driven and what characters they are, from Handy, the musician with the rasping voice and voracious sexual appetite which could so easily have been a stereotype but never was, to Astrid who had more mental strength and charisma than her husband. Abe and Hannah kept me reading late into the night. Hannah is magnificently inexplicable and so real that I felt I knew her, understood those times when she could do little more than sleep, or why she kept the tea service which had been her mother's despite the commune's ruling against personal property. In many ways the book is their story rather than Bit's but it's that small, gentle man who has stayed in my mind long after I've finished the book.

Like the best books this is one where you turn back to the beginning to check a name or a place and could so easily start reading it again as your mind registers points which it missed on first reading. It's a book to treasure and return to and I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

As I read I was put in mind of Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje because it gave me that same feeling of floating, willingly, wherever the story took me. It's high praise.

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