Thomas Parry, who used to be Matthew Micklewright, lives in Belle Air, formerly Lewes in Sussex. He remembers nothing from before the age of eight, when he was taken from his parents and billeted with his new "father", Victor Parry, and teenage "sister" Marie. This was part of the Rearrangement: as the country was going to the dogs, the government decided to reorganise "the entire population, from the royal family down". Everybody was tested and his or her personality classified according to the four medieval "humours" - choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, which correspond to the elements of fire, earth, water and air. The UK was divided into the Yellow, Green, Blue and Red Quarters, with barbed wire, minefields, guards and attack dogs to keep the people segregated. Not much madder than most government initiatives, but it must have cost a bit.
The Queen is getting along quite well in the phlegmatic Blue Quarter, having outlived "her choleric husband and melancholic son". Thomas, our narrator, is sanguine - "optimistic, good-humoured and well-meaning" - so he is in the Red Quarter. This is reckoned the happiest place to be, but its niceness can pall; and Thomas is not allowed to know what became of his less fortunate parents. Blue might not be too bad, but you would hardly want to end up in the angry Yellow Quarter, with its crime and rioting, or the depressed Green, with its boarded-up shops and spiralling suicide rate.
The future described by Rupert Thomson is far from futuristic. E-mail and mobile phones seem to have disappeared: the government wants to stop communication across the borders, and the author wants to remove familiar references so that he can cast his spell. In Thomas's kitchen, "The second hand ticked on the cooker's built-in clock", where you might expect a silent digital display. On a train journey, "The telegraph poles slid by, their wires sinking, rising, sinking", a sight almost as nostalgic as a steam engine.
Thomas has taken a government job, which allows him to protect Victor and Marie from regrading (he thinks they may be going rather Green) and offers the possibility of travel. His office in Pneuma, the Red zone of the capital, overlooks "a square where people used to get drunk on New Year's Eve. The famous admiral now stood in a mined wasteland, peering out, one-eyed, over a tangle of barbed wire." All the quarters converge on the capital, and across that wire is the Yellow zone, Thermopolis, a place of sirens and machine-gun fire. But when Thomas is put on a mission to hand over a very angry 15-year-old girl to the Yellows, he has to drive far north along the border, instead of just crossing the square.
By now we can detect an element of Gulliver's Travels, as well as Candide, Brave New World, Zamyatin's We and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Surely Thomas will find himself on a trek through all four quarters? And he does. While attending a four-power conference in the Blue capital, Aquaville (west London, with its plentiful canals and reservoirs), he has a magical, transformative experience that leads him to overstay his visa and go on the run. Cue horrors, idylls, shipwreck, arrest, escape and a fine romance with a shape-shifting spirit-guide-cum-secret-agent. The novel turns pretty weird, what with the telepathy and telekinesis, but it always exerts a picaresque pull. And Thomas does find what he is looking for, sort of.
Thomson's writing tends towards curious symbols: the book that Victor makes from the leather of his deported wife's shoes, the giant papier-mache animals ceremonially torched at a Yellow resistance meeting, the cargo of religious statues that floats from the wrecked ship. There are showpiece similes: brass instruments "perfectly smooth and glowing, like honey poured over the back of a spoon", kicked-off shoes hitting the floor with a sound "like dwarves turning somersaults", someone's lower lip "curved into a small plump shape, like a segment of tangerine". Most impressive, however, is the subtle control of tone, which makes satire and adventure, comedy and grief seem all of a piece.