The Fountain in the Forest is a mystery built on mysteries. First, there is the question of the corpse found strung from the rigging of a West-end theatre. Next, there is Detective-Sergeant Rex King, the policeman with the sketchy past. Lastly, and perhaps most surprisingly, there are the words in bold scattered across each chapter, seemingly drawn from some other, fruitier vocabulary. By the novel’s end, each of these will have been solved or, at the very least, explained. Answers are not necessarily this author’s game.
Tony White’s new novel is one of those books you can’t explore too far without exposing the taut workings of its razor-wired guts. It’s a novel of striking contrasts, one which begins with a note on the proper usage of the French revolutionary calendar and swiftly plunges into the street-level beats of a grubby London-set policier. Games are being played and not all the rules are on the table. As the story develops, we depart for 1980s rural France, to an isolated village repurposed as a utopian commune, before circling obliquely round to the last of the Stonehenge festivals and its bloody aftermath at the Battle of the Beanfield. The connections between each strand appear dim at first, but White releases information in a satisfying slow trickle, one which builds to a striking conclusion.
Comparisons have been drawn with Derek Raymond’s cultish Factory series, but while both authors build from meticulous procedural detail and share a passionate affection for the ghosts of London past, White’s writing lacks those novels’ wounded melancholy and despairing sense of a society in decline. True, his novel can be read as both a paean to the lost soul of the counter-culture and a gutsy crime thriller with blood on its boot-rims, but there are glimmers of hope seeded throughout.
And then, of course, there is the experimental streak. Many of the formal games White plays in the novel nod to the constraints of the Oulipo group, a mid-century faction of French artists who imposed rules and restrictions on their writing as a means of exploring the limits of language. ‘Experimental fiction!’ you may shriek and head running for the hills, but this novel benefits from all the gains such an approach can offer; it has heart and tenderness and leads us to the most unexpected places and at the centre of all this puzzling is a thriller with deep hooks.
The Fountain in the Forest is published by Faber & Faber and is available here.
Tony White is the author of five previous novels including Foxy-T and Shackleton’s Man Goes South, as well as numerous short stories published in journals, exhibition catalogues, and anthologies. White was creative entrepreneur in residence in the French Department at King’s College London, and has been writer in residence at London’s Science Museum and the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He recently collaborated with artists Blast Theory on the libraries live-streaming project A Place Free Of Judgement, and currently chairs the board of London’s award-winning arts radio station Resonance 104.4fm.
Reviewed by Nick Garrard
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