Armitage, G.E. 1956–
Armitage, G.E. 1956–
(Gary Edric Armitage, Robert Edric)
PERSONAL: Born April 14, 1956, in Sheffield, England; son of E.H. (a store manager) and A. (Gregory) Armitage; married Helen Sara Jones (a teacher), August 12, 1978; children: Bruce Copley Jones (stepson). Education: University of Hull, B.A. (with honors), 1977, Ph.D., 1980.
ADDRESSES: Home—Alentinnan, Springbank Ave., Hornsea, North Humberside, England. Agent—Antony Harwood Ltd., 103 Walton St., Oxford OX2 6EB, England.
CAREER: Writer, 1982–.
AWARDS, HONORS: Trask Award runner-up, Society of Authors, 1985, for A Season of Peace; James Tait Black Fiction Prize, 1985, for Winter Garden; Guardian Prize runner-up, 1986, for A New Ice Age; Arts Council bursary, 1995; Booker Prize nomination, 2002, for Peacetime.
A Season of Peace (novel), Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1985, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1986.
Across the Autumn Grass (novel), Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1986.
UNDER PSEUDONYM ROBERT EDRIC
Winter Garden (novel), Deutsch (London, England),1985.
A New Ice Age, Deutsch (London, England), 1986.
A Lunar Eclipse, Heinemann (London, England), 1989.
In the Days of the American Museum (fiction), Cape (London, England), 1990.
The Broken Lands: A Novel of Arctic Disaster, Cape (London, England), 1992, Thomas Dunne Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Hallowed Ground (novel), Sunk Island Publishing (Lincoln, England), 1993.
The Earth Made of Glass, Picador (London, England), 1994.
Elysium, Duckworth (London, England), 1995.
In Desolate Heaven, Duckworth (London, England), 1997.
The Sword Cabinet (novel), Anchor (London, England), 1999.
The Book of the Heathen: A Novel of the Congo, Anchor (London, England), 2000, Thomas Dunne Books (New York, NY), 2002.
Peacetime (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 2002.
Cradle Song (novel), Doubleday (London, England), 2003.
Siren Song (novel), Doubleday (London, England), 2004.
Swan Song (novel), Doubleday (London, England), 2005.
Gathering the Water (novel), Doubleday (London, England), 2006.
Contributor to periodicals, including London magazine.
SIDELIGHTS: Under the pseudonym Robert Edric, G.E. Armitage has published a number of well-received novels in his native England, many of which have also been released in the United States. In Desolate Heaven, for one, plays upon "the fashion for novels about the First World War," according to London Times reviewer Robert Nye. But unlike most war fiction, In Desolate Heaven is set not on the front lines but in neutral Switzerland, taking a civilian's point of view of the devastation of war. As the story opens after the armistice, Elizabeth Mortlake has brought her ill sister-in-law, Mary, to a hotel where both hope to recover from the trauma of losing Mary's husband and Elizabeth's brother to the war. Reminders of battle are everywhere in the maimed veterans who visit the hotel from a nearby hospital. The darkness of war is juxtaposed with an emotional awakening in Elizabeth, who is attracted to an enigmatic English officer named Jameson. In Desolate Heaven, reported Nye, "is like one of those dreams where you can come awake, then fall asleep and continue where you left off; it has that kind of coherence and necessity."
Along with war themes, the novelist "has always been fascinated by the world of showbiz on its uppers," noted Sunday Times contributor D.J. Taylor. In the Days of the American Museum is a fictional account of the showman P.T. Barnum in his decline; The Sword Cabinet takes place during the early days of Hollywood. In the latter work, the King family of magicians and plate-spinners are facing ruin as vaudeville gradually gives way to the new entertainment medium of the silver screen. "Gliding through a fog of hoary showbiz gossip and technical revelation," Taylor commented, "Edric neatly collates these fragments from the world of bedrock mid-century entertainment into a series of puzzles." The reviewer welcomed The Sword Cabinet as "a thoroughly arresting performance."
One of Edric's early books to arrive on American shores was The Broken Lands: A Novel of Arctic Disaster. In this work the author gives a fictional retelling of a real-life incident, the ill-fated 1845 expedition of Sir John Franklin and his crew of 135 sailing for the Northwest Passage. The book starkly describes the doomed men who could not overcome the harsh environment; indeed, "like the whale in [Moby-Dick], the ice in this engrossing novel is almost a character itself," suggested Fred Gervat in Library Journal. A Kirkus Reviews critic also welcomed The Broken Lands for its portrayal of the deep commitment of its characters, commenting that the author "makes clear the Victorian sanity and scientific attitude that are too often written off as victims of the mania for exploration."
With Peacetime Armitage returns to his interest in the aftereffects of war. Set in the year 1946 in a ramshackle English fenland village, the novel begins with engineer and former army captain James Mercer coming to a town to supervise the destruction of a gun platform. The people there live in shoddy homes that are destined for destruction because the site is going to be used for a coastguard station. Because of this, Mercer tries to distance himself from the ill-fated locals, as well as the men working for him. "Mercer," wrote Patrick Gale for the London Independent, "belongs in neither group, awkwardly an officer among men, a liberal among [the local] bigots." He tries not to get involved in their lives, but he soon finds himself inexorably drawn into their stories. Some of the main characters include a German prisoner of war named Matthias, who is wracked by guilt over his country's crimes, and Jacob, a Jewish Dutch glassmaker who survived the Belsen concentration camp but is slowly dying from grief over the death of his family in the Holocaust.
Both the Jew and the German are hated by the local people, but the flames of their hatred are fanned even more by the return of Lynch, a soldier who had been imprisoned for attempted desertion and for almost killing a man. Lynch is the father of Mary, a teenage girl whom Mercer has, despite his best judgment, befriended along with her mother. Tension builds in the story both from the dangerously waxing prejudice in the village and from Mercer's suspicions that Lynch is beating his wife and daughter. "In common with Edric's best novels," wrote John de Falbe in the Spectator, "Peacetime describes a practical, professional man, bearing the tools of civilisation, going into the unknown to bring order. Instead of the grateful and submissive raw material that he is led to anticipate, he finds a world of unremitting harshness, where the people and the landscape are set against him from the outset; where cruelty is routine and the ramifications of past sufferings reach inexhaustibly into the future." Comparing Peacetime to Rachel Seiffert's The Dark Room, Francis Gilbert similarly noted in the New Statesman that in both books the main characters "are contaminated and compromised by a conflict with which they were not directly involved."
Critical praise for the novel was widespread, despite the story's unrelentingly grim themes. "This is a novel of ambition and skill," declared Gilbert, "at once a historical meditation, an evocation of a disintegrating society and, perhaps most strikingly, a family melodrama." Gale said: "Peacetime works because of Edric's refusal to let the mounting tension slacken. The gathering menace is heightened by the mournful emptiness of the landscape described. Edric's characters come to seem as isolated and vulnerable as chess pieces." Although Manchester Guardian reviewer Ian Thomson felt that "the narrative is a little static," he added that "Peacetime remains a marvel of psychological insight and subtly observed relations."
In The Book of the Heathen: A Novel of the Congo, Armitage creates a narrative involving the Congo at the turn of the twentieth century, a time when British control of the region is handed off to Belgium and citizens of Europe are becoming aware of the horrors being visited upon the Congolese by the great Victorian adventurers and unscrupulous robber barons. Into this scene comes British expatriate James Charles Russel Fraiser, who has taken a position with a trading company for the sake of the adventure. But the trading company has fallen on hard times and adventure is hard to come by. Even as Fraiser is disenchanted by the situation he encounters, his coworker Nicholas Frere, the literary kin of Joseph Conrad's fictional character Marlowe, is excited by the natives' wild ways and disappears at times into the jungle in hopes of catching them in the midst of their rituals. After one of his extended visits, he is charged with killing a native girl, and Fraiser sets out to discover what really happened. Writing in the Washington Post Book World, Jabari Asim noted the novel's thematic similarities to Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness but lamented that Armitage seemed not to have Conrad's ear for portraying the panoply of horror that abounded from all sides in the Congo, and not just from the Africans themselves.
With Cradle Song the writer launched a trilogy of thrillers that continued with Siren Song and Swan Song. The gray town of Hull in the north of England is the setting for a case involving a serial killer. Leo Rivers is the private eye who begins investigating the case of Nicola Bishop, a teenager who has been missing for several years. Her father suspects murder, and when Martin Roper, who was convicted of a different murder some years earlier, begins to appeal his conviction, he offers information on the girl as a bargaining chip. As Rivers begins poking around, he finds few people associated with Roper's case willing to talk. The case takes a turn for the worse when a former classmate of Nicole's is killed after Rivers interviews her. A writer for Kirkus Reviews praised the novel, calling it "taut and brooding" and "marvelously paced and plotted."
In Siren Song, the dealings of Hull slumlord Simon Fowler are brought to Rivers's attention as he investigates two deaths that may have been murder. M. John Harrison, reviewing the book in the Guardian, lamented the lack of character development in Rivers, who "remains a bleak little cypher," but nevertheless concluded that "Edric has a knack for the shift of perspective which shows you that a world you have begun to accept has morally barren assumptions and rules."
Armitage once told CA: "I look upon my Armitage novels as more traditional, 'rounded' novels with the narrative impetus provided by the story itself, whereas the Edric novels are concerned with the less-structured interplay of characters and ideas. The writing too, I feel, is more adventurous and 'experimental.' My common themes appear to be the breakdown of relationships and individuals and the inability to communicate. On the whole, the characters are ordinary people and the situations in which they exist common to us all."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, May 15, 2004, Ellen Loughran, review of Peacetime, p. 1607.
Books, November, 1995, review of Elysium, p. 25.
Guardian (Manchester, England), June 15, 2002, Ian Thomson, "Prisoners of Waterland"; June 12, 2004, M. John Harrison, review of Siren Song, p. 28.
Independent (London, England), June 8, 2002, Patrick Thomson Gale, "Patrick Gale Visits an Eerie Backwater with a Writer Who Deserves More Limelight."
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1987, review of A New Ice Age, p. 1413; November 15, 2001, review of The Broken Lands: A Novel of Arctic Disaster, p. 1567; May 1, 2004, review of Peacetime, p. 410; September 15, 2004, review of Cradle Song, p. 882.
Library Journal, December, 2001, Fred Gervat, review of The Broken Lands, p. 170.
New Statesman, July 15, 2002, Francis Gilbert, "War Wounds," p. 51.
Observer (London, England), February 15, 1994, review of The Earth Made of Glass, p. 21.
Publishers Weekly, June 26, 1987, review of Winter Garden, p. 58; November 6, 1987, review of A New Ice Age, p. 58; November 19, 2001, review of The Broken Lands, p. 46.
Spectator (London, England), February 26, 1994, Tom Hiney, review of The Earth Made of Glass, p. 34; September 2, 2000, D.J. Taylor, review of The Book of the Heathen: A Novel of the Congo, p. 36; June 1, 2002, John de Falbe, "Very Flat, the Wash," p. 43.
Sunday Times (London, England), June 20, 1999, D.J. Taylor, "A Magical Performance," p. 8.
Times (London, England), July 24, 1977, Robert Nye, review of In Desolate Heaven, p. 37.
Times Literary Supplement, April 6, 1990, Roz Kaveney, review of In the Days of the American Museum, p. 375; November 12, 1993, Jason Cowley, review of Hallowed Ground, p. 22; February 11, 1994, Tom Shone, review of The Earth Made of Glass, p. 20; December 15, 1995, review of Elysium, p. 20; July 11, 1997, Jonathan Keates, review of In Desolate Heaven, p. 23.
Washington Post Book World, November 26, 2002, Jabari Asim, review of The Book of the Heathen, p. C2.