One of my favourite poems is Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts. In it, the poet writes of how the old masters recognised the “human position” of suffering: “how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”. Auden summons the image of Bruegel’s Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, where the mythical drama is playing out in the background, while “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster”. This poem and the painting it describes seem like a useful model for thinking about Adam O’Riordan’s gentle and intimate first novel, The Falling Thread.
The book opens in the white heat of the trenches: a barrage of shells approaches and Lieutenant Wright begins to count. “If he got to a thousand, he’d have made it.” Then the novel spools back in time to an earlier generation of the Wright family: it’s August, 1890, and we’re in a prosperous suburb of Manchester where Charles, the oldest of the Wright children, is mooning around the house, his eyes repeatedly drawn to Miss Greenhalgh, his sisters’ new governess. The two engage in a frantic fumble, a child is conceived, scandal barely averted. Meanwhile his sisters grow and change, with Tabitha becoming involved in a local charity for the underfed poor, while Eloise goes to art school and becomes a painter.
Writing about plot rather misses the point of this book, though. As with Bruegel’s painting, it’s the incidental that is momentous here, the everyday given such intimate attention that it becomes extraordinary. O’Riordan’s descriptions are detailed to the point of excess, his language so finely judged as to be almost unreal. Reading this book feels like stepping through a hushed and ornate museum, or a model village whose simulacrum of real life is so perfect as to be unsettling. O’Riordan has researched the world of late-Victorian Manchester deeply, and that knowledge means that the narrative energy of the book comes not from the shop-worn machinations of plot but rather from the accretion of convincing detail, the gradual build-up of atmosphere.
I wonder if this has something to do with being a teacher of creative writing, where style has long been privileged over plotting. O’Riordan was until recently the director of the esteemed Manchester Writing School and ran its MFA programme. We’ve heard a lot about the impact that creative writing classes are having on the publishing world – university courses churning out students whose style is homogenised, risk-averse, self-consciously literary. But I’m not sure anyone has considered what teaching these students does to the prose of their professors. The highly polished perfection of O’Riordan’s writing, the sense of an author taking almost unseemly pleasure in the Jamesian poise of his sentences – these feel like something that comes from teaching the same classes year after year, from climbing too far inside the machine of language.
At the end of the novel, one of the characters sits in a moment of stillness in a place well-known since childhood. She “looked around the room and tried to fix it as it was, the clocks, the piano, the ammonites on the mantelpiece. It had begun to rain, lightly, at the window, on the rose stems trained beside the glass.” These words, which are more or less the last in the book, feel emblematic of the entire project – the loving, closeup description of things, the wish to “fix it as it was”. Then we race forward in time to the war, to Lieutenant Wright in the trenches, and it’s as if O’Riordan is showing us the kind of book he might have written, one with bombs and drama and thudding hearts, rather than this stately, intimate yet austere family saga which, for all its quietness, feels like a more important work of literature.
• The Falling Thread by Adam O’Riordan is published by Bloomsbury (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply