Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
In Fivefold, five individuals find themselves manifesting strange gifts, after accidentally stumbling across a ruined cathedral in Yorkshire. They seem remarkably willing to take these odd gifts and their (rather freaky) manifestations in their stride. However, they soon find that they are hunted by the mysterious Lords of Severity, and apparently protected by a Fivefold Cabal that has links to an equally mysterious Order of the Brightening Dawn. Much dashing around England follows, along with sudden and deadly attacks, both physical and metaphysical. Rather than seeking any kind of help from the authorities, or family and other friends, the five friends allow themselves to be dragged around the country by the uncommunicative Fivefold Cabal, and pulled deeper into an ages-old conspiracy.
Although I didn’t enjoy Fivefold very much, it is a novel that has the potential to be enjoyable for the right audience in the right mood. One of my difficulties with it was the sheer stupidity of the act that is utterly necessary to get the plot moving – but it’s on a par with watching a horror movie and knowing with utter certainty that someone is going to go into that dark space alone. If you’re in the right mood, you can still enjoy the movie.
For me, it was just too difficult to suspend my disbelief and enjoy this novel. The critical act early in the novel involves five people who go off the beaten track and discover ruins which they suspect may not be well known. Although no-one knows where they are, they don’t have mobile phone coverage, and a storm is closing in, still every single one of them agrees to go through a trapdoor and into an unlit tunnel just to see what’s there. Because yeah, that’s what every normal person would do. Even when some of them have doubts about the wisdom of it. Burrage would no doubt argue that his characters were mystically drawn down there, but it certainly wasn’t conveyed particularly well – you just have to assume it from later events.
Overall, I found the plot not very compelling. A large part of this blame must rest with the unrealistic characters and even less convincing relationships between them. These five people have apparently been friends (and sometimes lovers) since university, but I found that hard to believe. Most of them don’t seem to like each other much, their lives are extremely diverse, and … well, I never had a real sense that they were friends. There seemed no reason for them ever to have spent time together, and even less for them to have retained any kind of bond once they left university. I really struggled to believe they were anything more than casual acquaintances. Those who were supposed to be lovers were even less convincing. I just didn’t buy that these people would do more than nod at each other in passing in the street – if that.
Given that I struggled to believe in these characters or their relationships, a plot that hinged strongly on the relationships was never going to work well for me. And unfortunately, even if I had believed in the relationships, I’d still probably have found this plot rather pointless. In the end, this came across as a rather half-arsed conspiracy story. The conspiracy wasn’t all that convincing, and the point of it seemed rather silly. Burrage tries hard to infuse the plot with deep meanings and resonances, but to me it largely came off as self important and silly.
And a side note: the tag line on the front of the book makes very little sense to me. I have read this novel, and in fact I have read the Bible and had religious studies forced on me as a child. Even so, the tag line “What if the first five chapters of the bible weren’t about good and evil at all?” remains obscure. I doubt I’m alone in that, and either Burrage or his publishers may have done better to choose a teaser that’s more explicitly addressed in the novel.
For some people, this won’t be a bad novel. They’ll be able to overlook the poor characterisation and unrealistic relationships, and suspend their disbelief long enough to find the positives in a hectic plot that relies quite a bit on mystical coincidences but keeps the characters in almost constant motion. I didn’t enjoy it much, largely because there wasn’t anything of real substance here – the plot didn’t catch my interest and wasn’t very complicated, the characters didn’t engage me, and the relationships just didn’t ring true. However, something about the writing style did suggest that for a reader in the right mood, this could work.