The Potter’s Hand by A.N. Wilson
Atlantic Books $39.95

Mr Wilson is prolific; he is known for his histories, biographies, novels and controversy for controversy's sake, more or less equally. But in this novel he seems to have somewhat lost the knack he did have for fiction.

The Potter's Hand is his first novel for some years. It is not uplifting, nor cheerful. It is, generally, sad. And sadly, because he was once quite polished, it is inept and slipshod, groping for profundity, and not finding it. Wilson has gone fishing for the Novel of Ideas but not hooked anything very big or tasty. He has been a natural storyteller and his earlier novels are quite tight, but this time he doesn't invent much plot to lose.

So do I give it away? The central conceit, that a master craftsman's finest work is not actually his, but the work of a self-taught Native American, is a bit of a stretch - because we're not in magical realism territory with Wilson, but rather literal-minded historicism.

Our central figure, if not a hero, has a wooden leg, and it is attached to a thoroughly wooden character.


Based on Wilson's own ancestor, the craftsman potter/industrialist/visionary Josiah Wedgwood does not spring to life off the page, despite being hung about with enough 18th century tropes to audition for Blackadder.

The other principal, the male romantic interest, travels to the American colonies as they prepare to rebel against George III, to buy fine china clay from the surprisingly urbanised and technologised Cherokee nation - who, in this narrative, are more civilised than the degenerate colonists, some of whom have reverted to absolute barbarism.

Actually, that was the bit I liked. After that it got a bit dull. The Big Man grows old and cantankerous, his spoilt sons fall short ... but it was ever thus with dynasties.

It does not convince, either, when these sons fall in with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who clearly figures in Wilson's mind as a fraud and a blot on our history.

This Coleridge is a slug and a bludger, the poet belittled to score cheap thrills of denigration, Oh, all right, Wilson is allowed to dislike Coleridge, he doesn't crack me up either, but it doesn't do much for the novel, and if it is intended to amuse, well, it didn't.

Then there is the clumsy striving for drug cred. Most of the cast (who include Darwin's dad, among other historical celebrities) are on varying doses of laudanum through 500 pages, but they are usually in pain so that's at least relevant. But there is a particularly gratuitous attempt at a Cheech and Chong moment which is laughable, but for the wrong reasons.

And I seriously doubt the phrase "muscle up" was used in 1760. But if it was, it would still disturb the surface tension of a text that strives to feel robustly Georgian, and doesn't.

Rick Bryant is an Auckland reviewer.