The poet and now novelist Adam O’Riordan was born in Manchester, teaches there, and has declared that the city “has always had a central place in my imagination”. His 2010 debut poetry collection, In the Flesh, opened with a poem called “Manchester”, which O’Riordan described as an “obsessional imaginative remaking” of his home town in its Victorian industrial prime, complete with its “million windows and the smoke-occluded sun”. He again summons a late 19th-century incarnation of the city to open The Falling Thread, his debut novel, which follows the lives of Charles, Tabitha and Eloise Wright, children of a Manchester cotton mill owner, in the quarter century or so leading up to the first world war.
Poets who write novels are sometimes commended for not writing “a poet’s novel”, by which reviewers mean something where fine description and precise attention to language come at the expense of plot. The Falling Thread is full of fine description and, yes, a poet’s precise command of language, but it also offers plenty of plot. Two wars are quickly referenced and it takes just a handful of pages for Charles and his sisters’ governess Hettie to move from hesitatingly stilted conversation, to hands touching for a little longer than necessary, to sex – soundtracked by “the leisurely contralto of a blackbird … growing louder and louder” . Soon the family doctor is declaring that “young Charles here is the father”.
The couple are promptly packed off to America to marry and avoid scandal at home. Charles leaves Cambridge and his studies in natural science; Hettie has to transform herself into a future mistress of the house. These major life events are given their due, but O’Riordan is also very good at capturing the way lives are recalibrated and roll forward, with the what-might-have-beens receding over the years. Charles’s trajectory, of course, appears to have been less dramatically rerouted than Hettie’s. Back in Manchester with his wife and son, he eventually takes over the family business, displays some political ambition, writes letters to the Manchester Guardian and sits on boards. He progresses from being a student of natural science to someone who gets a cactus named after him in the local botanical gardens. Hettie never quite manages to shake off a sense of anxiety, while Tabitha goes on to become active in the women’s movement and then charitable work, and Eloise enrols at art school, leading to excursions into American, European and Cornish bohemia.
The big backdrops to the novel are the worlds of industry and commerce, art, and the natural sciences. All these milieu offer the impression of solidity while being equally subject to rapid change, whether via the vicissitudes of capitalism or the imagination of the avant garde. What is permanent and what is not is constantly under review, as much by the simple passage of time as by more directly presented alternatives to the status quo – women’s suffrage, say, or homosexuality. Birds pipe up all the time as a kind of early warning system of events both large and small.
The first world war bookends the main narrative, but it is as peripheral for the reader as it is for the characters. O’Riordan cleverly manages to maintain this sense of distance while simultaneously evincing a low-level background dread as to the coming loss and change. Interaction with the Europe that will soon be shattered is taken for granted by the bourgeois Mancunians, whether by Eloise and her art crowd or Charles knowing that Brahms had once performed in the Zurich concert hall he attends for a trade conference. America also looms, with the economic centre of gravity having long shifted west and its postwar cultural leadership already inevitable, as evidenced by the breezy confidence of a midwestern patron of the arts who takes Eloise under her wing.
As the siblings’ lives are played out, so O’Riordan’s facility for observation and empathy edges The Falling Thread towards the more traditional model of a poet’s novel. He captures the broad canvas of a vibrant city, as well as the fine grain of daily life, from noticing the cook’s “pale wrists ploughing the yellowish dough” to evoking the relaxed and knowing humour between grownup brothers and sisters and the near impossibility of Hettie ever truly being able to share in it. His characters’ lives are full of drama and dynamism and reverses, but O’Riordan has an uncanny ability to make it all feel less like plot and more like convincing biographies unfolding before us. His novel ultimately becomes a deeply satisfying meshing of the vast sweep of history with the familiar textures of lives as they are lived.