The poet and now novelist Adam O’Riordan was born in Manchester, teaches there and has said that the city “has always had a central place in my imagination”. His 2010 debut collection of poems, In the Flesh, opened with a poem titled “Manchester,” which O’Riordan described as an “obsessive imaginative overhaul” of his hometown in its industrial Victorian heyday, with its “millions of windows and the smoke -sun occluded.” He again summons an incarnation of the late 19th century city to open The Falling Thread, his first novel, which follows the lives of Charles, Tabitha and Eloise Wright as children from an owner of a Manchester cotton mill, during the quarter of a century or so before the First World War.
Poets who write novels are sometimes praised for not writing “a poet’s novel,” by which critics mean something where fine description and precise attention to language comes at the expense of plot. The Falling Thread is full of beautiful descriptions and, yes, a precise mastery of a poet’s language, but it also offers a lot of intrigue. Two wars are quickly referenced and it only takes a few pages for Charles and his sisters’ housekeeper Hettie to go from a hesitant and stilted conversation, to hands touching each other a little longer than necessary, to sex – on a soundtrack. of “the quiet contralto of a blackbird. … stronger and stronger “. Soon the family doctor declares that “young Charles is here the father”.
The couple are quickly sent to America to get married and avoid scandal at home. Charles leaves Cambridge and his studies in natural sciences; Hettie must transform into a future hostess. These major life events have their due, but O’Riordan is also very good at capturing the way lives are recalibrated and move forward, with what could have gone backwards over the years. Charles’ trajectory, of course, seems to have been less dramatically diverted than Hettie’s. Back in Manchester with his wife and son, he eventually took over the family business, displayed some political ambition, wrote letters to the Manchester Guardian and sat on boards. He goes from being a natural science student to someone who gets a cactus named after him from the local botanical gardens. Hettie never quite manages to shake off a sense of anxiety, while Tabitha becomes active in the women’s movement and then in charity work, and Eloise enrolls in art school, which leads to excursions in American, European and Cornish bohemia.
The great backdrops of the novel are the worlds of industry and commerce, art and the natural sciences. All these environments offer an impression of solidity while also being subject to rapid change, whether through the vicissitudes of capitalism or the imagination of the avant-garde. What is permanent and what is not is constantly under scrutiny, both by the mere passage of time and by more directly presented alternatives to the status quo – women’s suffrage, say, or homosexuality. Birds present themselves all the time as a sort of early warning system for events, large and small.
The First World War tightens the main story, but it is as peripheral for the reader as for the characters. O’Riordan intelligently manages to maintain this sense of distance while simultaneously exhibiting a low-level, background fear of loss and the change that is to come. Interaction with the soon to be shattered Europe is taken for granted by the Mancunian bourgeoisie, whether by Eloise and her crowd of artists or Charles knowing that Brahms had already performed in the Zurich concert hall at which he was attending a business conference. America is also looming, with the economic center of gravity long ago shifting west and its already inevitable post-war cultural leadership, as evidenced by the cheerful confidence of a Midwestern patron who takes on Eloise. under his wing.
As the siblings’ lives play out, O’Riordan’s ease of observation and empathy brings The Falling Thread closer to the more traditional model of a poet’s novel. It captures the broad canvas of a bustling city, as well as the grain of everyday life, from the remark of the “pale wrists of the cook plowing the yellowish dough” to the evocation of the relaxed and complicit humor between adult siblings. and the near impossibility of Hettie ever really being able to share any. The lives of his characters are filled with drama, vibrancy, and setbacks, but O’Riordan has an uncanny ability to make it all feel less like a plot and more compelling biographies unfolding in front of us. Her novel ultimately becomes a deeply satisfying mesh of the vast expanse of history with the familiar textures of lives as they are lived.