Farundell, by L R Fredericks, John Murray RRP£12.99, 401 pages

Is it possible to know the mind of God? L R Fredericks, in this richly ambitious debut novel, explores this question. The story, set just after the first world war, revolves around Paul Asher, a disaffected American. Spurned by his father, he joins an ambulance unit; afterwards, having largely failed to write a novel (in Paris, of course), he washes up in England. He is lonely and bored; casting around for a job, he is sent by a man whose life he saved to a house called Farundell, where he is to act as amanuensis to an ageing peer, Lord Damory.

The house, beautifully realised by Fredericks, is a magnet for bohemians: wander around and you will bump into Jarlath Quinn, an artist friend of Aleister Crowley’s; an effete tutor who babbles about being “saved”; and a man from the 18th century who is not a ghost but a multi-dimensional being. There is an annoying teenager, Alice, who spends most of her time reading Spenser and worrying about etymology, and wise old Theodora, who says things like “we make a boat, and separate ourselves from the sea. Or, we are a boat, until we realise we’re not.” Most of these people can perform a sort of astral projection in which they float around at night in their “moon-bodies”.

There is a model village, called Arcadia, in the grounds, to which each generation of Damorys has added: the children sweep in and decide whether the inhabitants live or die, performing burial and rebirth ceremonies. The living inhabitants of the house, too, are subject to such vicissitudes: et in Arcadia ego.

Fredericks is adroit at changing moods, able to conjure up the horror of a battlefield, the calm of a garden, or the farce of a party. Through it all, Paul starts to read Hermes Trismegistus (a collection of mystical, Platonic texts of uncertain authorship) and wanders around taking photographs of people and then dipping his finger into the text to find wisdom. This, though a clever idea, is not the most convincing or engrossing of plot devices. The bibliomancy he performs always turns out to be appropriate. I just put my finger into Hermes Trismegistus and came up with “thought is sister to speech.” Useful, eh?

Paul communes with the deity in Hermes Trismegistus, known as Pymander, who starts to appear in his mind as a mildly sinister presence called “Mr Pym”. The danger arises that Paul’s narrative, his growing sense of knowledge and power, is threatened by all the other competing ones. Each section is languorously realised, with a certain texture that at times hints at the darker sides of Iris Murdoch, but they do not quite fit together. When Jarlath’s daughter Sylvie arrives, and embarks on a torrid affair with Paul, the sexual tension and ferocity are generated with exquisite detail. But then the plot veers: an underground chamber is discovered; filmmakers arrive at the house; a trumpeter has a homosexual affair with Damory’s son. The effect is cinematic: but it feels as if the writer is thinking about the film before she’s thought about the novel.

In the end, the mysteries of this novel – accomplished though it is – are too distracting. We come no closer to knowing the mind of Mr Pym. Yet, even if the final scene leaves one gasping with incredulity, one cannot help but be swept away by Fredericks’ bold intentions.

Philip Womack is author of ‘The Liberators’ (Bloomsbury)

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