Delphi by Clare Pollard review – bleakly funny lockdown tale | Fiction

Delphi is, as you might expect from the title, a novel about the future, but also about the very recent and the very distant past. The narrator is a translator of German fiction and part-time classics lecturer at a London university, living in lockdown with her increasingly distressed 10-year-old son and her increasingly withdrawn partner Jason, who is drinking increasing quantities of alcohol. Her time is divided between trying to care for and home-school her son, trying to do her work and trying not to spend too much time on Twitter. None of these endeavours is particularly successful.

Meanwhile, she’s thinking about the future and particularly about her proposed book on ancient Greek techniques of prophecy. Each chapter heading introduces a way of divining the future – Rhapsodomancy: Prophecy by Poetry; Ololygmancy: Prophesy by the Howling of Dogs; Urticariomancy: Prophecy by Itches, and so on. Often we get a brief account of the Greek method, but sometimes just another day in lockdown. “I am sick of the future,” the book begins. “Up to here with the future. I don’t want anything to do with it; don’t want it near me.”

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Based on current plausible prognostications (Prophecy by Science?), this is a reasonable position. We all know what’s coming for us and our children and we all know who to blame; what is a novelist to do, how should narrative proceed, when the only question left is exactly how fast the end is approaching? It’s all here, “that dystopian future of surveillance, video calls and VR headsets, and viral epidemics spread by globalisation, and the 24-hour news saying AI extinction event gene-modification the collapse of civilisation”. (What, no climate change?)

One of the problems for realist fiction in 2022 is that the end of the world as we know it proceeds shapelessly, without much by way of plot or narrative structure but with an obvious and looming ending. It’s hard to craft an elegantly structured novel that admits our widely shared sense of living in the end times, which is presumably why some writers are persisting along parallel tracks with fiction set in a fantasy, Covid-free version of the last three years. Delphi is not the book for readers still hoping to participate in this grand repression, but for anyone looking for ways of thinking creatively and with love about art in an emergency and what just happened to us all I would recommend it, because despite the bleakness – you can’t have realism without bleakness now – this is clever, warm and funny writing.

Finding her husband playing Candy Crush when he has shut himself in the study and declared himself unavailable for childcare or housework because of urgent and overwhelming work commitments, the narrator furiously recounts her own afternoon: “barely got a couple of hours on my translation, then had to drive back out to pick Xander up at 3.15 and admire some cereal boxes that had undergone, frankly, the bare minimum of intervention, drive back via Tesco and the garage, make Xander’s tea then prep ours, play football with him in the garden, wash up – OK, I’m boring myself now … ” Jason is playing Candy Crush Saga. “Saga? As in a long and complex narrative, possibly written in Old Norse?” He’s too absorbed in the game to respond: “I realise that if Jason had an affair I would be able to forgive the sex but I would never ever be able to forgive him the time.”

Between the domestic dark comedy, the narrator thinks about narratives of the future, and particularly narratives of the future from the past. What do we want to know, what do we not want to know, what do we have to believe to keep going and how much do we want to know the truth of what we have to believe? Meanwhile, the ancient Greek gods bargain, curse and fight in the background because, while the action, as in any lockdown story, is limited, the narrator’s head is a busy and unusual place echoing with voices from long ago as well as Twitter’s prophecies of doom. This isn’t exactly a comfortable book, but it has the consolations of proper thinking and good writing.

Delphi by Clare Pollard is published by Fig Tree (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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