If DG Compton’s other novels are as good as Ascendancies, I shall continue to track them down and read them. Of course, I’m not saying this from a sample of one. Ascendancies is the sixth book by Compton I’ve read (see here and here for two of them) . But it is the most confounding. It is an odd book. Beautifully written, well observed, tightly plotted, but… odd. Its central conceit remains a mystery, and its title seems like an afterthought. Nonetheless…
Ascendancies is, like The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe and The Electric Crocodile, a two-hander. The two in Ascendancies are Caroline Trenchard and Richard Wallingford. Caroline’s husband has recently passed away, and Wallingford is the insurance agent tasked with ensuring the death is as reported. Because in the 1986 of the novel (which was published in 1980), the UK is experiencing a number of unexplained phenomena. One of these is “Disappearances”. First there is “Singing”, a sound as of heavenly choirs, seemingly coming from all directions. This is accompanied by a cloying smell of synthetic roses. And after every Singing, people are found to have vanished. No one knows what happens to them, or where they go.
The other phenomenon is “Moondrift”, which falls from… somewhere, at irregular but frequent intervals. It can be burnt as fuel, or used as plant food. As a result, the UK is prospering – so much so that people now legally work only three days a week.
Wallingford is employed by the Accident and General Insurance Company, who have insured the life of Caroline’s husband, Havelock. But they won’t pay out if Havelock has simply Disappeared. Hence Wallingford’s visit to Caroline’s house… where he discovers that a body has been substituted for the allegedly deceased. However, instead of reporting the matter, he agrees to defraud the AGIC, taking forty percent of the £100,000 policy. Which act draws the stolidly lower middle-class Wallingford and the bohemian upper middle-class Caroline together in a relationship that is not quite a relationship, and which is never entirely suitable (as Compton is fond of telling us).
Ascendancies charts the progress of the two’s affair, and that is all. When the story is over, neither Moondrift nor the Disappearances have been explained. All we’ve done is watch Wallingford and Caroline overcome their prejudices and draw close together, and then split apart as the final hurdle proves insurmountable. And “watch” seems an apposite verb as there’s much in Ascendancies which smacks of a BBC drama. Without consciously doing so, the story becomes for the reader an early 1980s Play for Today on BBC1, not unlike The Flipside Of Dominick Hide.
Partly this is because Compton’s dialogue is amazingly sharp. But it’s also there in the way he draws his characters, which is chiefly through that sharp dialogue. And also, some of his characters feel dated – especially Havelock’s circle of bohemian friends and hangers-on. As a result, the story itself seems far more 1980 than 1986. But it is beautifully-written, and those two central characters are drawn with superlative skill.
And the title? It is referenced twice in the novel. It apparently refers to a game of oneupmanship which two of the characters admit to playing. Caroline admits to playing it, although it’s hard to know exactly how it is played. Nor what playing it actually achieves. It is, like the Disappearances and Moondrift, just another part of the world of Ascendancies that Compton refuses to explain.