Adam Foulds’ The Broken Word – Reviewed by Pam Johnson

The Broken Word presents scenes we don’t expect to find in poetry. Dramatising shameful events in our colonial history, Adam Foulds’s novel-in-verse places us among British reactions to the Mau Mau rebellion in 1950s Kenya.

We see events through the eyes of Tom, home for summer from boarding school in England before returning to start university. On a train through Kenya, as yet unaware of the uprising, Tom innocently talks to the locals because he: ‘… had missed the sound/of thoughts fetched and weighed/ and slowly spoken, ideas/that had formed slowly in the sun,/a million miles from the bark/and whine and snivel/and brag of school.’ Tom is warned to move out of the carriage. He will soon discover that the British will spare no time weighing up thoughts or speaking slowly.

Foulds has taken a risk in daring to work in verse rather than prose; passages of exposition can sound flat, though they act as a setting for, and contrast to, the moments of startling lyric intensity that compel the reader through the narrative.

Tom witnesses, and becomes complicit in, acts of almost flippant brutality: rape, summary executions, men buried up to their necks. He recalls two men after torture, ‘… heavily edited. Between them: nine fingers, two ears, three eyes, no testicles.’

Atmosphere and place are conjured with economy and precision: ‘The night getting colder, whirring,/fur-trimmed with moths.’

These flickering, haunting images read like a newly-discovered stash of hushed-up photographs; we become eye-witness to events kept quiet for half a century.

Foulds jacket

Foulds ends the book with scenes of Tom back in England, an undergraduate. Now a ‘connoisseur of beatings’ and ‘retaining ever less of himself,’ Tom is uncertain of boundaries, not entirely in charge of his appetites.

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