The Countenance Divine
by Michael Hughes
The debut novel by Northern Irishman Michael Hughes has almost inevitably been compared with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The story comprises a quartet of novellas which, as suits 21st-century fashion, are intricately interlinked. “It was a kind of puzzle,” teases the opening page. “Each piece had an image or motif on it, but together, they formed one overall design.” Hughes moves his own pieces like a grandmaster. In the near present, 1999, a computer programmer prepares for the millennium bug. This echoes the apocalyptic mood of the preceding tales. In 1777, William Blake (whose poem Jerusalem gives the novel its name) recalls ecstatic childhood visions and grapples with John Milton’s Paradise Lost. As Blake handles a relic of Milton’s rib, the reader travels in time again to 1666 and to Milton himself, who is under surveillance by his own apprentice, Thomas Allgood. All this mingles with Jack the Ripper’s rampage through the East End of London. It all comes together, cleverly and thrillingly: Blake’s proverbs mix with grisly serial killing, the economics of art with radical politics, momentary fame with the infinite.