I first heard of Adam Foulds last year when his debut novel, The Truth About These Strange Times, won him the Sunday Times Young Author of the Year award. I second heard of him when his debut book of poetry, The Broken Word, won the Costa Poetry Award and narrowly missed out on the overall Book of the Year gong. And I do mean narrowly: it was a 5-4 vote by the judges (and one of the five wavered), who went for Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture instead. If we take into account that the judges’ praise of The Secret Scripture was highly qualified (“there was a lot wrong with it. It was flawed in many ways – almost nobody liked the ending”), then it will surely be uncontroversial to say: here is the real winner of the Costa award.
Old, or easy, habits die hard. It was difficult for me not to have at least a little eye-rolling response when I heard that this book is a narrative poem addressing the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya in the 1950s. It just sounds so … earnest. That, even if the book was no good, is a shameful response, but I include it in the hope that anyone reading this who shares it, will now read on and be pleasantly surprised – be positively delighted – as I was.
The Broken Word is a tale of when civilization meets savagery – with identification of which is which neatly blurred. The Kenyan rebels butcher those loyal to the British regime:
The patrol pulled into the sergeant’s own village
to see it almost finished. No one screaming.
The men labouring hard, quietly, as in a workshop,
a boat builders’ yard,
limbs and parts scattered around them,
their wet blades in the flamelight
glimmering rose and peach.
and the British respond in kind.
Yes. Chaps got a bit worked up,
actually, sort of let them
have it somewhat.
The writing is elegant and laconic, full of space, which – just about – enables Foulds to cover a meaty issue in 60 pages. The reader must do the work of allowing each chapter break to expand to days or weeks of unseen activity, otherwise time can seem to tumble over itself. Colonial comfort (“Sipping the fragrant blue acid / of a gin and tonic”) rubs shoulders with bloody violence (“he’d have to clean / with bucket and sponge / each wet red gust / from the station wall”). Sometimes both these aspects of British rule are efficiently brought together (“Two shots from the hut. / A smattering of applause / as from a cricket pavilion”).
The beauty of the imperialism/colonialism theme for a writer is that it provides a handy parallel for today – the reader needn’t look far for echoes of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib in Compound Nine, the British ‘interrogation’ unit:
Three weeks later two of the men came back,
wordless and unsteady, heavily edited. Between them:
nine fingers, two ears, three eyes, no testicles.
No good to anyone, they were let out
to wander briefly as mayflies
and die as a warning.
The Broken Word may not present new revelations about its subject (though its subject in itself will be news to many, including me) or themes, but it does present it all seductively. The central character, Tom, provides the main spring of the story as he experiences events which might fairly be called character-building, though his tragedy is the character that this leaves him with. This in turn leads to the drama of the last chapter, which seemed appropriate but too eager to end the book on a neat finish. Nonetheless The Broken Word is a fine achievement, whose greatest strength is also its weakness: the word-by-word perfection, a sort of clean beauty, which dilutes the effect of the horror contained within even as it opens our eyes to it.