Let's get medieval

<strong>All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well</strong>

The protagonist of Tod Wodicka's outstanding debut novel has a nose of Cyrano de Bergerac proportions. Much like another famous literary nose, the one inherited by Saleem Sinai in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, it is an essential component in his personal history. But unlike Saleem, whose snout is clearly traceable to his grandfather, Burt Hecker is cut off from his origins. His mother was raped, "quite possibly [by] her father" - hence, perhaps, the deformity - and Burt was abandoned in an orphanage. He responds in adulthood by throwing himself into an imagined history: a mania for medieval re- enactment. He wears a tunic, quotes Richard of Devizes and refuses to consume food that is OOP (out of period). His nose fits in nicely with his garb: when he is apprehended by the police after a spot of drink driving, an officer asks him to remove it.

Driving, of course, is OOP, and thus out of character; but Burt has been struck by tragedy. His wife has just died, his children despise him, and his addiction to mead is out of control. Needing a break, Burt instructs his lawyer to sell the family stead - a guest house in upstate New York - and embarks on a re-enactment holiday in Germany with the Confraternity of Lost Times Regained. His ticket, however, is one way. Burt has a vague desire to track down his son in eastern Europe, and little sense of what the future has in store for him.

Heading towards Prague, he pieces together the past of the dysfunctional family Hecker. His wife was the daughter of Lemko immigrants ("basically a kind of eastern European hillbilly"), a race blighted first by the Germans, then the Russians. The marriage was odd, but it seemed to work: luckily for Burt, Kitty saw absurdity in "everything and everyone". Relations with his ancient mother-in-law are rather more fraught. Like Burt, Anna Bibko clings to the past, dressing in traditional Lemko costume, but the two re-enactors do not get on: "Our histories clashed." Tristan, Burt's musician son, is caught between the two. He used to play the lute and hurdy-gurdy to please his father, but has since switched to the trembita and flojara of Lemko folk. June, Burt's daughter, has sought more distance. Her youthful obsession was the mock future of Star Trek, her adult passion is the deep past of geology, and she has moved to California. She's even lost the nose Burt bequeathed her via the plastic surgeon's scalpel.

Burt gets drunk and rings June: they argue. He tracks down Tristan: they fall out. It is clear Father Hecker has done something very bad. And having run through a potted history of his loved ones, he finally gets around to contemplating his own life (a suspension that works well on the reader). For all his humour and gentle warmth, Burt is a child. He is obsessive, intrusively eccentric and deeply selfish. As Kitty lay dying, he fell to pieces; but it was the children who suffered most as a result. Burt claims to be trapped in his medievalism, a displacement as real for him as that of a pre-op transsexual. He cannot take responsibility for his actions - "By all accounts," he tells us, "June had had an unhappy childhood" - and his main instinct is denial. But for all the damage he has wreaked, he remains damaged goods himself (the nose is only the start). In a final family showdown, he has the chance to find redemption, while his detractors must begin to look at their own motives and role in the repetition of history; their own methods of displacement.

All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well (the title was a favourite saying of Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic) is a vibrant, original, at times hilarious novel. Burt is a memorable character, prone to witty observations (breakfasts, in Germany, are "terrifyingly premeditated"), embroiling himself in slapstick situations, with a keen eye for the ludicrous in life. But Wodicka's novel is more than a lively farce. It is a worthy addition to the school of studies in American dysfunction - in heritage, rebellion, the bonds and resentments of family love - reminiscent of Roth or Franzen (or The Royal Tenenbaums, for that matter).

"English history is all about men liking their fathers, and American history is all about men hating their fathers," wrote Malcolm Bradbury. Wodicka has produced another guilty dad; but culpability is rarely so simple. Looking around the room, Burt begins to notice the resemblances between Anna, Tristan, June and himself. It is, he realises, "that most indelible, improbable and terrifying thing: a family". Wodicka examines domestic life as one great disorientating re-enactment. "Families are historical things . . . They have precedent, they repeat themselves, they have a million points of view and they never stay the same, even after they happen." Burt is merely an extreme example of the urge to use the past as a shield. Even June admits that she wants to raise her son "in my own history". Wodicka shows us the necessities of learning how to put the shield down.

Toby Lichtig is an assistant editor at the TLS

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?