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Dr. Kent's review of Ictis

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Elaine Pomm [Elysian Fields], “Ictis”, Author House, 2006, 10. Some readers may remember Elaine Pomm’s pyschological-themed first novel, The Playground, which was published in 1995. Over a decade later, she returns to public prominence with this ambitious historical and contemporary fantasy, set in twelfth-century Cornwall and the present day. Flitting around the genre established by writers such as Ellis Peters and Umberto Eco, this in effect, is a medieval-themed mystery story, but it also has touches of contemporary writing - in particular the work of Dan Brown and Sam Bourne. Like the novels of these pair of authors, the reader is given a set of conundrums, clues and codes, and the reader is kept in suspense throughout. Indeed, if that genre is exploding at present, then this is its Cornish-themed example. The novel’s premise is that there have been a series of murders of boys in cathedral schools across Britain. Interestingly, Pomm[e] sets herself - or at least a projected vision of herself - into the contemporary parts of the book. This in itself is quite a novel device, and it used to make connections with the mythic Cornish landscape surrounding the mount. She is presented as a Ph.D. student and uses her research to discover information about the strange events occurring. A merger of time allows Pomm[e] to explore the history of the Benedictine Priory: ‘Elaine had barely closed her eyes when she heard the noise of a bell ringing’. Pomm’s own Jewish background is used to instigate an exploration of common-day medieval anti-Semitism. This is a useful tool. There are many similarities between the historical experience of the Cornish and Jewish peoples. The link to Marazion is less convincing for me - that place-name probably being a corruption of Cornish. I suspect the subject of Ictis is fascinating for many Cornish readers, it being the ancient name for the island on top of which now sits St Michael’s Mount. With commanding views of the surrounding Bay, and of course, a useful port for all vessels coming up the British Channel, Ictis was a commercial and spiritual hub of early medieval Cornwall, and Pomm (who here chooses the pseudonym Elysian Fields) uses this adeptly. As well as it geographical scope, there is also a fascination with the dark recesses of the human mind (Pomm is a graduate in Philosophy from the University of Exeter). Her interests include politics, metaphysics, ethics and Christian theology and it is not surprising to find these as core themes within the fiction. What is always most intriguing about Pomm’s work is the playful nature of the prose. She is able to step convincingly from medieval philosophy, grail lore and Noam Chomsky to Beadle’s About and contemporary Popular culture. The philosophy however, is not always easy going for those faint of heart or those expecting an easy Da Vinci Code style thriller. There is much of interest though. For example, a consideration of the Ebonites: Jewish Christians who were vegetarians and believed that Jesus was the human son of Mary and Joseph. I also very much liked the ambition of this work. If we are to have novels set in Cornwall, then why shouldn’t they deal with epic material? All too often the historical-themed Anglo-Cornish prose work is happy enough to throw in a few felt-hatted miners, some references to smugglers and wreckers, and that is enough. This scope, whilst not for everyone, has to be commended. Other linkages are carefully woven into the narrative. Dolphins swimming in Mount’s Bay are intertwined with Milton’s visionary poem ‘Lycidus’, where he speaks of ‘the guarded mount’ and the dolphins which ‘waft the helpless youth’. French Jewery, the Crusades, Zionism, The Canterbury Tales, Avalon and Frocin the Dwarf from Tristan and Iseult, all find their way into the novel’s climax. This is not the kind of novel one can sit down and read with a cup of coffee. It is not easy bed-time reading and so requires work and reflection. The reward however is great, and it seems to me, that in some future age, scholars might well have fun dissecting and connecting all the material Pomm has woven together. As I read the book, I was thinking of Ciaran Carson’s 2001 work Shamrock Tea, a book with a similar ambition, albeit from an Irish perspective. Ictis is available from Author House, 500 Avebury Boulevard, Milton Keynes, MK9 2BE. Tel. 08001 9754150 or may be found in all good bookshops in Cornwall. Alan M. Kent

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