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Lempriere's Dictionary

Lawrence Norfolk

Harmony Books / Crown Publishing

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-517-58184-1

Publication Date: 1991

422 Pages; $22.00

Date Reviewed: 10-22-02  

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



General Fiction, Mystery, Horror


Darkness falls; we cannot see far beyond the windows of our own lives. But it's easy to sense that all of us, connected to those we know intimately, are connected to others in a fractal pattern that could unfold in our own minds to encompass first the world then the universe, had we but time to accumulate the facts, make the connections. Good fiction shines a light out over a few more degrees of separation. Great fiction plugs an electric cable into the reader and illuminates the whole grid. 'Lempriere's Dictionary' wants to be great fiction. It wants to plug the reader into a grid reaching back hundreds of years, across reality and fantasy as if they are one and the same. Just as some mountaineers make it to the top of Everest, some readers will find that 'Lempriere's Dictionary' provides precisely that experience. It illuminates the grid. Other readers will themselves stranded in base camp, sick and exhausted. How much of an effort are you willing to make to achieve the view offered by Norfolk's first novel? Having made your best effort, will it even be possible for you to see as Norfolk sees? And does he actually see a Grand Design in his sea of words? These are important decisions; consider them carefully before you buy this book, and once again before you start reading. The effort is considerable, but so are the rewards, if they don't elude you.

'Lempriere's Dictionary' is Lawrence Norfolk's first novel. Like many first novelists, he apparently wanted to say a lot, and unlike many first novelists, he has actually managed to do so. Whether the reader is able to decipher that message is going to be a very individual experience. Young John Lempriere watches as his father is attacked and killed by a pack of dogs. Lempriere is in love with the dog owner's daughter. He's also tied to a "vast, right wing conspiracy" (well that's what they call it today) that involves hidden cabals, immortals and angels. How he muddles through all this angst and still manages to write a famous precursor to 'Bullfinch's Mythology' comprises the scope of the novel.

Of course, such plot summaries rarely do books justice, or even a decent favor, and in this case that's more true than usual. Norfolk is working on a novel for the ages that spans the ages, includes lots of real characters and provides deep insight into creativity, love and reasons to live and live well. He casts his net wide and pulls deep. The result is likely to divide readers into two camps. There will be those for whom this book is a vacation, a complete and utter escape into a carefully constructed hermetic universe based on the complex history of our own world but informed by a visionary fever on the part of the author that exceeds any of those considerable visionary fevers he portrays in his characters. 'Lempriere's Dictionary' is intricate, surreal, supernatural and scholarly.

The novel is also very passionate, full of the sound and the fury that signifies a Great Deal. The average reader of say, bestselling mystery novels, is barely going to make it through the first few pages. Even the hardy reader of novels of complexity and intensity is going to find this novel rather tough sledding. The very passion that informs the writing, the intensity that Norfolk seeks and finds, combined with the complexity required to reveal his thoughts tend to make their comprehension elusive. Characters blur and fade as required by Norfolk's positively precision-oriented plot-machine. Plots unravel across time and in the reader's mind. Here's a novel that cries to be published in a hypertext version, so readers can twig to every allusion, so that every carefully constructed connection comes to light. Of course, this also makes 'Lempriere's Dictionary' the sort of novel that you can read and re-read, if your reading queue is sufficiently light. There's no doubt that each reading will be more enjoyable, more revealing than the first. Assuming that first reading is enjoyable, 'Lempriere's Dictionary' may be one of the best book purchases you ever make. If it doesn't imprint itself on your wall, there's little doubt it will imprint itself on your mind.