Diversions in the Pen
by Tom Merrill
Sept. 20, 2017
My annual prison term―most call it winter―was made less unpleasant this last
time around when British writer Douglas Board popped out of the blue one day
with a couple interesting and different things for me to do.
Getting to read and help edit three successive drafts of his second novel was
one of them. That kept me occupied for a considerable time with a project I had
a special interest in. My special interest was due to the fact that some words
of mine were used in the book. I naturally wanted the setting in which they
would be appearing to have as finished and compelling a final form as possible.
It was work, to be sure, editing, proofreading, scribbling notes, especially for
someone grown accustomed to only using books to help hasten the effect of his
nightly dose of melatonin and valium. Reading at night before taking my pills
and without the objective of falling asleep faster was indeed a strange
experience. But a decent stretch of ground had to be covered daily to ensure
that I'd make it through all those pages in time to be of any use. Fortunately
the story and writing were good enough to keep me moving at a pretty good clip.
And any alterations that were made as a result of my suggestions were quite
The other occupation Doug provided was Simon Edge's first novel The Hopkins
Conundrum, a bound galley of which Doug sent me at some point during
my interminable incarceration along with an invitation to write a review of
it if it captured my interest. Simon's book did capture it, so much in fact that
what I've really been getting around to here in this little reminiscence of my
most recent prison days is plugging it.
The Hopkins Conundrum is a story about two romances that occurred a
hundred years apart in the same location. Secondarily it is a spoof on foolbait
novels, the kind that send credulous readers on wild goose chases. The novel is
a mix of historical and modern romance with a refreshing added dose of
irreverence toward authors who play to people's credulities for profit.
The novel reads beautifully and Simon has a real knack for evoking scenes. You
feel you're right there alongside his characters in whichever scene he is
conjuring, that you're observing and experiencing as fully as they are the
events and surroundings and dire predicaments brought to life.
Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of the book's major characters and his lifelong
infatuation with prematurely deceased poet-prodigy Digby Dolben comprises the
deeper vein of the novel's contrasting stories.
Dolben, who died at age nineteen by drowning, had nonetheless become a fully
mature poet before he died, revealing in several of his later poems a
poetic perspective comparable to Housman's or Larkin's. He also brings to mind
Shelley sometimes. With nothing more than snippets of his and GMH's poetry Simon
manages to convey the depth of insight that marks the work of fully ripened
Simon also credits Hopkins with the discovery of a kind of poetic foot hitherto
unnoticed in the domain of prosody.
My favorite sentence in the book is "Tim exhausted himself with the effort of
feigning interest." Fortunately my own is not feigned, since Simon's book is the
opposite of exhausting. It has received nothing but favorable notice so my own
is just one tiny extra feather in a cap already fully fledged.
Simon Edge's first novel
Conundrum can be further explored and/or purchased by clicking the