The Countenance Divine

The Countenance Divine

An ambitious, engrossing and multi-layered debut novel'Michael Hughes writes like a brilliant cross between David Mitchell and Hilary Mantel' Toby LittIn 1999 a programmer is trying to fix the millennium bug, but can't shake the sense he's been chosen for something.In 1888, five women are brutally murdered in the East End by a troubled young m...

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Title:The Countenance Divine
Author:Michael Hughes
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Edition Language:English

The Countenance Divine Reviews

  • Katheryn Thompson

    I've done it. I've committed to the five stars.

    This genre-defying book, with one of the most beautiful covers I have ever seen, spans four time periods. In 1999, a computer programmer, Chris, is trying to fix the Millennium Bug while also trying to figure out himself, as he secretly belives himself to be chosen for something important, and his colleague Lucy, who is working on a mysterious art project. In 1888, Jack the Ripper stalks the back alleys of London, following the instructions of

    I've done it. I've committed to the five stars.

    This genre-defying book, with one of the most beautiful covers I have ever seen, spans four time periods. In 1999, a computer programmer, Chris, is trying to fix the Millennium Bug while also trying to figure out himself, as he secretly belives himself to be chosen for something important, and his colleague Lucy, who is working on a mysterious art project. In 1888, Jack the Ripper stalks the back alleys of London, following the instructions of his master. In 1777, William Blake, poet and engraver, has a spiritual vision, and believes that he can resurrect Milton. In 1666, John Milton finishes reciting his epic, by which he will be remembered forever, but the air is thick with Popish plots and Restoration fears, not to mention the smoke from the Great Fire of London.

    I loved the different strands, and the way in which they bleed into one another, treading a fine line between reality and fantasy, and constantly circling back to the idea of the return of Christ and the end of the world. 'The Countenance Divine' is a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging read, with a fascinating and original plot shrouded in mystery and ambiguity.

    I would highly recommend this weird and wonderful book, and am extremely lucky to have won this uncorrected proof in a Goodreads giveaway.

  • Blair

    A genre-defying novel with multiple timelines - from the 17th century to the 20th - that converge in a fantastical alternate-history climax. Real historical figures appear in the story, and they're given surprisingly authentic voices, but the best plot strand involves Chris, a young computer programmer who's working to eradicate the millennium bug and has a crush on/obsession with a coworker. Comparisons to David Mitchell are accurate; the later parts in particular gave me distinct

    vibe

    A genre-defying novel with multiple timelines - from the 17th century to the 20th - that converge in a fantastical alternate-history climax. Real historical figures appear in the story, and they're given surprisingly authentic voices, but the best plot strand involves Chris, a young computer programmer who's working to eradicate the millennium bug and has a crush on/obsession with a coworker. Comparisons to David Mitchell are accurate; the later parts in particular gave me distinct

    vibes. To that, I'd also add references to Keith Ridgway's

    and the fiction of Scarlett Thomas.

    is smart (and obviously meticulously researched) but always easily comprehensible, cleverly laced together, unique. I didn't feel at all like reading when I read it, yet I was captivated.

  • Roman Clodia

    "Everything's made of something else. We all have bits of the past rattling around inside us."

    It's hard to describe this book: I guess an apocalyptic fantasy. At its heart is a pattern of events that take place in 1666, 1777, 1888 and, in the 'present', 1999, which link together John Milton, William Blake, Jack the Ripper and a computer programmer called Chris working on fixing the Millenium Bug.

    Hughes has made the effort to capture voices: the laconic Chris, the only-just-literate

    "Everything's made of something else. We all have bits of the past rattling around inside us."

    It's hard to describe this book: I guess an apocalyptic fantasy. At its heart is a pattern of events that take place in 1666, 1777, 1888 and, in the 'present', 1999, which link together John Milton, William Blake, Jack the Ripper and a computer programmer called Chris working on fixing the Millenium Bug.

    Hughes has made the effort to capture voices: the laconic Chris, the only-just-literate Jack, though is perhaps less successful with Blake and a contemporary of Milton. As visions and hallucinations merge with the macabre and grotestque, we're left with something which is part modern horror, part historical novel and part fevered fantasy.

    It probably helps if you're familiar with Milton's Paradise Lost and Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, as well as his engravings based on Milton's epic - though you could get by without. An original story which mixes up some familiar elements in novel ways - 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.

  • Joanne Sheppard

    The Countenance Divine is Michael Hughes’ first novel, and it’s an ambitious start. Set in four different time periods and told through four very distinct voices, it’s heavily influenced by the work of Milton and Blake, has visionary, macabre and apocalyptic elements and hints of psychogeography. The blurb that accompanied my copy compares it to the work of David Mitchell (to my shame I haven’t ready any David Mitchell, so I couldn't say how accurate I think this comparison is) although it remin

    The Countenance Divine is Michael Hughes’ first novel, and it’s an ambitious start. Set in four different time periods and told through four very distinct voices, it’s heavily influenced by the work of Milton and Blake, has visionary, macabre and apocalyptic elements and hints of psychogeography. The blurb that accompanied my copy compares it to the work of David Mitchell (to my shame I haven’t ready any David Mitchell, so I couldn't say how accurate I think this comparison is) although it reminded me a little of some of Scarlett Thomas’ books, with elements of Nicola Barker's Darkmans.

    The first character we meet is Chris in 1999, a computer programmer working on protecting clients’ systems against the infamous Millennium Bug. Chris’ chapters are narrated in the third person, but the unadorned, blunt clarity of the language here is an obvious reflection of his methodical, logical character and the source of some unexpected humour. Chris holds something of a torch for his colleague Lucy, but is unsettled by the chaos that seems to surround her – her apparent emotional instability, her strange self-destructiveness and her associates with their mysterious underground project whose purpose is not immediately clear. There are some strange echoes in Lucy of the Ripper murders which took place in 1888 in the same part of London, and indeed, it’s Jack that we hear from next, through the medium of his own semi-literate letters.

    These letters are every bit as gruesome and chilling as you'd expect, but the more we learn of Jack, the more it becomes clear that someone or something is guiding him. Once again, Hughes gives Jack a highly distinctive voice, so although we learn only a few small details about his background, he quickly becomes a vividly three-dimensional character as he applies his own terrifying rationale to his motives.

    It's really when we meet the visionary poet and engraver William Blake in 1777 and an assistant to poet and playwright John Milton in 1666 that The Countenance Divine takes a stranger turn. Blake, prone to hallucinatory visions, is compelled to create a homunculus from one of the dead Milton's ribs; Milton himself, whose elements of the story are told through the diary of his assistant Allgood, is finishing Paradise Lost just as the Great Fire of London destroys the city.

    Allgood's diary is written in an exceptionally authentic 17th century style, which is flawlessly done, but also makes these chapters a little hard-going; you will need to invest more time and concentration here.

    If you enjoy books which offer neat explanations and satisfying revelations, this is not a novel for you. There are countless hints, clues and allusions throughout, as the four time periods begin to overlap and collide, but they don't lead to any clear conclusion. You'll be left to decide for yourself if the world is really about to end, what's 'real' and what is imagined, and who a figure in a golden mask who seems to exist simultaneously in different times might really be. It's also worth pointing out that I came to this book pretty familiar with the work of both Blake and Milton - if you don't, you will miss out on some of the references. I don't think this will affect a reader's overall understanding, but it won't be quite so rich a reading experience.

    This is an exceptionally well-written novel - the four styles Michael Hughes uses are very different, yet each of them is executed brilliantly - which excels in creating a gathering sense of doom, conjuring up the unsettling, oppressive atmosphere of a world, and in particular London, on the brink of catastrophic disaster. If I have a criticism, it's that it's occasionally a little slow, which is always dangerous in a novel that requires attention to detail on the reader's part.

    The Countenance Divine will published on 11 August. My thanks to John Murray Press for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley.

  • Kaitlin

    * I was sent this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review *

    So I really wasn't entirely sure what I was getting when I asked for this book. All I knew was that the cover looked really cool, the premise sounded crazy, and I was definitely intrigued. Honestly, even having read the book, I won't pretend I fully understand it all. It's beautiful, and poignant, brutal, bloody and messy, and it's definitely a book which I really liked reading...but ask me what it's about an

    * I was sent this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review *

    So I really wasn't entirely sure what I was getting when I asked for this book. All I knew was that the cover looked really cool, the premise sounded crazy, and I was definitely intrigued. Honestly, even having read the book, I won't pretend I fully understand it all. It's beautiful, and poignant, brutal, bloody and messy, and it's definitely a book which I really liked reading...but ask me what it's about and it's a bit hard to explain.

    Basically this book is told with four different story timelines which all have small links between them. In the year 1999 we follow Chris who is a computer programmer working to try and solve the Millennium crises for computers. He's a fairly normal guy at first, but as his story continues and he meets Lucy, things start to get more and more interesting and far-out for him.

    Next up we jump to 1888 where we see the character of Jack the Ripper and follow his letters about the murders he conducts. His sections were some of the most brutal, nasty and also most interesting for me becuase they hold a bleak fascination and they were written phonetically too. I really found myself drawn into the mind of this crazy killer (very scary) and it wasn't a nice place to be (but it was enthralling).

    Then we go back to 1777 where we encounter William Blake, a man who believes he's had a spiritual moment and as his life unfolds we see this vision unfold too. Blake is captivated by the ideals of John Milton, and he seeks to bring back Milton's essence in some dark ways.

    Finally we land back in 1666 where we follow John Milton's assistant as he tries to assist a man composing a great epic. This poem will be the one many remember Milton for, and along with the whims of a master, the assistant has to deal with the Great Fire of London. Quite a lot to contend with!

    In terms of writing style it's a little confusing at first, but I quickly settled into the rhythm for each narrative voice and I think they are distinct enough that you can tell what time you're reading about. The story does focus a lot on God and religion and spiritual moments and visions (as the title and cover suggest) and this raises lots of interesting questions and makes you think. I definitely enjoyed seeing the ways that small things from each story connected, and how it all came together in the end...

    Certainly a book which I think it's best to just dive into and enjoy, and it's one which I felt a lot of enjoyment, confusion and awe whilst reading. I would say if the ideas intrigue you, then you may well like this, but it's more of a speculative book than a purely fantasy or sci-fi in my opinion. 4* overall!

  • David Harris

    I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

    This is a complex and many layered first novel from Michael Hughes. It made me think of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum and Peter Ackroyd's occult London novels such as The House of Doctor Dee and Hawksmoor - but with an extra depth of human sympathy.

    The story takes place in and between four different times. In 1666, John Milton is living uneasily under the Restoration, already blind, and trying to complete

    I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

    This is a complex and many layered first novel from Michael Hughes. It made me think of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum and Peter Ackroyd's occult London novels such as The House of Doctor Dee and Hawksmoor - but with an extra depth of human sympathy.

    The story takes place in and between four different times. In 1666, John Milton is living uneasily under the Restoration, already blind, and trying to complete his visionary Paradise Lost. He enlists the help of Thomas Allgood as his secretary. Allgood narrates what happens next - as well his earlier personal history - via a set of notebooks which turn up in various places throughout the other narratives. To my (non expert!) eye, Hughes has captured the cadences of 17th century English very well - as well as the outlook of a man born Roman Catholic, part of a minority living precariously in a hostile environment, who later converts to a Protestant. The tension in Allgood's spirituality underlies much of what happens and his conversations and debates with Milton - also, of course, out of favour by 1666 - drew me into the narrative: don't be put off by the old fashioned cast to this part of the story, the issues explored are current and the characters touchingly and convincingly portrayed.

    The second time period is the 18th century, where in 1777 William Blake (best known now for "Jerusalem" but a poet, artist and visionary with a much greater breadth of achievement) had a spiritual experience. This is renewed in 1790. (Hughes plays a little bit with his timings here in a book which is supposed to be based on recurrences every 111 years but I think he can be forgiven that.)

    Blake was for me the most interesting of the protagonists. While Allgood is desperate and acting for pay and Milton resigned from influencing anything and simply wanting to complete his poem (and be remembered) Blake is truly driven. As his part of the story intersects the others we are reminded of the truly radical (and weird) inspiration behind what is now seen a very tame and Hovis-tinged English past. Blake is brought vividly to life and speaks to us, and for that Hughes deserves high praise.

    The third of the book's timezones (they're not separate neat sections, they overlap and are nested within each other) is less ecstatic, much nastier: the (semi literate) writings of a nameless individual in 1888 who, we quickly learn, is Jack the Ripper. There are some vivid descriptions of the Ripper murders - be warned this is very strong material indeed, and again Hughes convincingly inhabits the voice of his character, which only adds to the reader's unease. (Hughes is aware of the general fascination with the Ripper murders and the focus on the killer, not on the women he killed - it's mentioned a number of times in the story - and one thing he does do is name Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly and portray them as real people not just victims).

    This thread in the book, which is the briefest (for which I was thankful - it's strong stuff!) is I think the real key to what's going on, the hinge between the "old" and the "new" sections and it also to embody an idea - which is where the similarity with Ackroyd arises - of affecting both the past and the future through sacrifice.

    In contrast, the final time period (1999, where a team of programmers are working to address the Millennium Bug) which actually opens the book is easier to engage with, beginning as a more conventional story, focused on Chris and Lucy, both of whom are misfits. The story is told in 100 numbered parts, labelled 01, 02, 03... all the way up to 99 and then reverting to 00, in tribute to the Bug itself. Hughes adopts a very flat style for this part and emphasises Chris social awkwardness: I wasn't sure whether there was meant to be an implication that Chris might be Asperger's or somewhere on the autistic spectrum, but regardless of that it's a bit of a forlorn love story between him and chain smoking goth Lucy. That results in a bit of will-they, won't-they and makes the two characters much more approachable and sympathetic than anyone else in the book.

    In the end however, the modernity of this part is very much on the surface with the same preoccupations as the other sections - who or what (God or Devil) governs the world, whether they can be known or trusted, millenarianism, how far our destiny is given (that Bug!) and how far we can shape it or even make it (Chris tells Lucy how he used to believe he was Jesus and the book points out several times that even Jesus didn't know at first that he was Jesus). And the antics of Milton, Allgood, the young Ripper and of Blake prove intimately bound with the lives of Chris and Lucy.

    In all this is an exhilarating, compelling novel. It does require a bit of commitment. The different styles are very different and you need to pay close attention, but the book is never less than compulsive. My only criticism - and it is a slight one - is that a great deal is actually explained in the final few pages that might have been left unsaid. But to counterbalance that some mysteries remain, and you can't - in my view - rely on what you're told anyway: prophesy is, in the end, not a science.

    This is an excellent first novel, and I'm really looking forward to reading more of Hughes's work.

  • Susan

    This is an ambitious debut novel, which links four different time periods in an end of the world fantasy. We begin with Chris Davison, a computer programmer in 1999. He works for a company who are attempting to cope with the predicted chaos of the millennium bug and, one day, on his way to work he buys a Practical Rebus in Brick Lane market. Chris is fairly happy with his lot, but is unsettled by his new workmate, Lucy. Lucy is a Goth, who introduces him to “From Hell,” a graphic novel about Jac

    This is an ambitious debut novel, which links four different time periods in an end of the world fantasy. We begin with Chris Davison, a computer programmer in 1999. He works for a company who are attempting to cope with the predicted chaos of the millennium bug and, one day, on his way to work he buys a Practical Rebus in Brick Lane market. Chris is fairly happy with his lot, but is unsettled by his new workmate, Lucy. Lucy is a Goth, who introduces him to “From Hell,” a graphic novel about Jack the Ripper, and suggests she is involved in a group who intend to unleash something during the New Year.

    The group that Chris finally meets, including the enigmatic Oliver, ask if he has heard of Jack the Ripper, William Blake and John Milton and it is their stories which join that of Chris in this novel. We have letters from Jack the Ripper, describing his killings, plus the journal of Thomas Allgood, who was John Milton’s servant, as well as a spy placed in his household, and also narration by William Blake.

    This is a book of poetry, creation, obsessions and visions of the end of the world. The author does a good job of tying in the different time periods – 1666, 1777, 1888 and 1999. As far as the narration is concerned, I felt that the voices of Allgood and Chris were the most interesting; while the letters from Jack the Ripper the least authentic in tone. Ultimately, though, I found this a rather confusing, and unsatisfying, read. Still, the writing was good and the beginning certainly drew me in, even if I got a little lost in the middle. An interesting and ambitious debut which promises much from this new author.

  • Celine

    1666. 1777. 1888. 1999.

    Four years, one current that connects them: the far-reaching idea that human life will not be the same after.

    is an ambitious novel, tying together not only four vastly different time periods and their characters, but also highly contrasting writing styles. I was impressed with the diversity of writing, moving from pseudo-confessional document to dream sequences and stream-of-consciousness letter writing. These technical feats are what makes the boo/>The

    1666. 1777. 1888. 1999.

    Four years, one current that connects them: the far-reaching idea that human life will not be the same after.

    is an ambitious novel, tying together not only four vastly different time periods and their characters, but also highly contrasting writing styles. I was impressed with the diversity of writing, moving from pseudo-confessional document to dream sequences and stream-of-consciousness letter writing. These technical feats are what makes the book good - but at the same time it was missing that element that ties it all together. Though the reader is compelled to turn the pages, the lurking presence that connects all stories was only touched on too sporadically. By the end of it, I was vaguely left with the feeling of "what did I just read?"

  • Elizabeth

    Difficult to rate this one because it's really cleverly written but I was so utterly repulsed by parts of it that I really don't even like thinking about it. Interweaving stories in four timelines the novel plays artfully with its prose, switching tones and writing styles almost effortlessly. Each tale is told by its own narrator, each unreliable in his own way, each slowly building the atmosphere of strange, horrible weirdness. Millenarianism, religion, death, angels and madness - it's all in h

    Difficult to rate this one because it's really cleverly written but I was so utterly repulsed by parts of it that I really don't even like thinking about it. Interweaving stories in four timelines the novel plays artfully with its prose, switching tones and writing styles almost effortlessly. Each tale is told by its own narrator, each unreliable in his own way, each slowly building the atmosphere of strange, horrible weirdness. Millenarianism, religion, death, angels and madness - it's all in here, it's all quite clever but its also all pretty horrible. It's the first book where I really want to give trigger warnings. Don't get me wrong I can deal with some blood and guts, some nasty horror stories, but this book left me shaking and freaked out.

    Jack the Ripper stars as one of our four narrators, writing letters addressed to police, Queen Victoria, and to each of the women he kills. The letters to his victims describe his thoughts about the women and how killed them, what he did described in horrifying detail. Something about that, the way it's addressed to *you* as reader made me shudder. The attitudes toward women in some of the other sections were also often unpleasant or difficult and only made more so by this feeling of horror left by the Ripper sections. I know other people have enjoyed this book and found the Ripper chapters to be particularly fascinating but for me I just didn't need to hear the thoughts of a psychopathic misogynist toward the women he killed. There are other ways to write about him that aren't so disgustingly centred on his subject being fascinating and the women being objects. Same goes for the other sections and women tbh. No. No. Don't need it. No. And now my brain is sad. Stupid evil pretty book.

  • E. R. Jonas

    I received this book through the Goodreads Giveaways Program, and while my review is subjective, I have tried my best not to let this influence the review of this book and hope this come across in the reading of it. I finished this book ages ago, and here is finally a review.

    First off, let me say that this book has been really well researched. It is written in small episodes which take place in four different centuries; the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth. The main

    I received this book through the Goodreads Giveaways Program, and while my review is subjective, I have tried my best not to let this influence the review of this book and hope this come across in the reading of it. I finished this book ages ago, and here is finally a review.

    First off, let me say that this book has been really well researched. It is written in small episodes which take place in four different centuries; the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth. The main characters in the different centuries are John Milton (based on the poet), Will Blake (based on the poet), a letter writer (based on Jack the Ripper), and Chris Davison (a computer programmer).

    I found it a little difficult to keep my attention on the plot all the way through. The chapters jump back and forth between the centuries, and unless you are familiar with Paradise Lost, it will most likely be a difficult read. I loved the beginning of the book, even though the pacing is very slow-paced with several references to Milton’s epic poem. However, the pace stays the same for the larger percent of the book without any obvious character progression, which makes the book difficult to plough through. That is not to say it is poorly written, but that the text is not suited to my tastes. Yet again, the topic is interesting, and it leads me to wonder if perhaps the story was a little ambitious for such a short novel and might have worked better as a longer work?

    Michael Hughes has clearly put a lot of research into his work, which shines through in the text. His prose is beautiful and elegant and it was thrilling to see the different styles in each chapter as Hughes utilises a different voice for each of the centuries. This choice is stylistically an interesting one and is essential for the plot, which is trying to figure out if the world is going to end in the year 2000.

    The climax Hughes builds up to in the book is slightly disappointing, but I will leave it at that for avoiding spoilers. The copy I received was also an unproofed copy, so I am not sure how close to the final version it is, but the cover design on my copy is absolutely stunning and fits very well with the flowery prose.

    What Hughes does with the book is very stylistically interesting. As mentioned previously, we follow four different main characters, (three of which are based on historical, literary figures) in four different centuries and ultimately heads towards the end of the twentieth century. Throughout the course of reading this novel, I found myself wondering why this novel was published now when the main issue that the main characters tackle is related to the turn of the millennia, seventeen years ago, and I still don’t think I have an answer to that.

    As for reading this book, I would only recommend it to very specific people. People who have or are studying English Literature or language might find it interesting from an analytical point of view. However, you also need to enjoy reading books that need time to be read.

    There are very few female characters that are anything besides background noise in the story. However, I will leave the review off on a note about a particular female character: Lucy. Lucy is a goth who first becomes Chris’s friend, then his love interest (of course). This character seems to be slightly off the rails, which is a whole chapter on its own. However, I shall not delve into that, but my point is that choosing to present Lucy as a gothic woman who is a little crazy is problematic because goths have a bad enough reputation in popular media as it is without another novel reinforcing the stereotype.

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