Quest for an exotic adventure
FANTASY is the new black, again. At this moment in the literary pendulum swing, vampires are back in vogue, keeping the runway warm for the next reappearance of the dragons, trainee wizards, hobbits and talking lions that, it seems, also recur at regular intervals.
Books such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code operate at only a slightly less fantastical pitch, filling gaps in our historical knowledge with a kind of funny putty that mixes equal parts wishful thinking, rabid paranoia and narrative momentum.
Martin Davies’s novel The Unicorn Road occupies a different level in this realm of fantasy, one that is less over-egged than its contemporaries but still has a formidable pedigree. Taking as its motto L. P. Hartley’s dictum that ‘‘ The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’’, this kind of writing harks back to medieval romances and even further to ancient travelogues such as The Histories of Herodotus.
The Unicorn Road may refer back in time but Davies is canny enough to build into his story a couple of contemporary preoccupations — China and Islam — and to keep the writing plotdriven and evocative.
The narrative has a double structure. In the middle of the 13th century, an English merchant is waiting in Muslim Malaga in the south of Spain, hoping for news about his son Benedict, who travelled eastward years before and has not been heard of since.
In chapters that alternate through the book, the father travels to Granada and back, meets a range of colourful characters and uncovers the