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The Field of the Cloth of Gold by Magnus Mills review – Britain in miniature

For The Guardian:

This allegorical story of territory – alluding to the Roman invasion, the Vikings and Christianity – is a singular meditation on history, immigration and fellowship…

Magnus Mills has a reputation for great originality. His first novel, The Restraint of Beasts, in which two men erect high-tensile fences across a bog, set the tone and was shortlisted for the Booker in 1998. So unconcerned was the work with anything conventionally considered reader-friendly that the suspicion set in that Mills, famously a bus driver but less well known as a columnist, was some kind of existential genius. Since then, reviewers have invoked Beckett, though noted the absence of ontological incandescence; cited Kafka, but without the political insurrection. Mervyn Peake, minus the magnification; dehydrated Pinter; Stoppard that won’t soar … This is not to slight Mills – quite the opposite – but to point to a peculiar quality in his work, which summons up such names while steadfastly rejecting the grandiloquence of their underlying artistic agendas.
When I read The Scheme for Full Employment (Mills’s fourth novel, about van drivers ferrying spare van parts around) I assumed it was some kind of sub-Orwellian allegory written in the 1950s. The Field of the Cloth of Gold, Mill’s eighth novel, feels very similar. We are firmly in allegory territory again. “The Great Field” is “bounded in the east, south and west by water”. To the north lies wilderness. “For a select few … it was the chosen field: the place where momentous events would unfold and come to fruition.” When the unnamed narrator arrives with his tent, only Hen is there – “he occupied the extreme western margins”. In the south-east, there is the impression of another pitch – the owner of which, Thomas, returns, wearing druidical flowing white robes. Isabella comes next, pitching in the far east and defiantly swimming naked in the river; her tent is crimson and the narrator “liked to imagine it was lined with cloth of gold”. They are followed by Hartopp and Brigant, who settles grumpily near the wilderness and begins “making reference to the ‘lower field’ and the ‘upper field’ as though the Great Field was somehow divided into two halves’ and “hardship and discomfort were the sole preserve of the north”.

By now, you will be getting the idea.

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