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The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach – a homage to 18th-century fiction | Fiction

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This novel is a virtuoso performance. A literary homage to Fielding and Sterne, it tells the story of Thomas Peach, who moves to a remote corner of Somerset in 1785 to nurse his ailing wife. But his wife is never seen, and gossip is rife. Is Mr Peach “a scholar of mysterious arts”, and has he imprisoned his wife “in order to get his grasping hands on an inheritance”?

When Mr Peach travels to Bristol for a meeting of the Anti-Lapsarian Society, which aims to reverse the Fall of man, he encounters a young woman who is apparently possessed by a demon. This meeting leads, in true 18th-century style, to a sequence of picaresque adventures that present the reader with “puzzle and conundrum on every side”. But it is not the narrative that matters here so much as the vigour and rhythm of the narrative voice.

This voice belongs to a curious chorus of “necromantic spirits”, who are by turns digressive, discursive, comic and wise. Every word these “spirits” write feels authentic and the galloping rhythm of their storytelling creates a heartbeat that sounds through each page of the book. From mysterious mentions of the profession of horse boiler to saucy references to games of frog-in-the-breech, the world the “spirits” create is rich in eccentric period detail and gentle humour.

All this is most enjoyable, but why create an exact copy of an 18th-century novel? Is Treadwell too faithful to the patterns he follows? In accordance with 18th century customs, he engages in much heavy-handed foreshadowing, but the reader always suspects that Peach’s “remarkable secrets” will prove less interesting than expected. Sure enough, the book stumbles to a halt rather than resolving or explaining.

Yet, strangely, this proves more satisfying than disappointing. This may be because Treadwell has discovered unlikely resonances between the 18th-century novel and our own perplexing times. Rumour, farce, ridiculous happenings, amoral characters, the losing battle between reason and superstition. A world in which one damn thing happens after another and finally all we can do is shrug and smile. Does any of this sound familiar?

Treadwell’s book entertains and impresses but also rambles and frustrates. Yet he must be heartily congratulated both for performing an extraordinary feat of literary ventriloquism and also for reminding us what historical fiction does best: create an entirely convincing vanished world while also using that world as a lens through which to view the present day.

Alice Jolly’s Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile is published by Unbound. The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach by Jas Treadwell is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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The Groucho

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