Robinson, Bruce Easter Egg - How Old Was Thomas Penman?

The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman, published in 1998, is a novel by Bruce Robinson, author of the screenplays of "The Killing Fields" and "Withnail and I". It is a deeply moving and painfully funny novel, and also beautifully crafted. Make no mistake: this is a genuine egg, not a slip-up.

The novel opens at the start of 1957 and states that Thomas was 13 (page 7). It closes in the summer of 1959 when "in three days he [Thomas] would be 16" (page 276). Correct chronology, all well and good.

However, look at the two references in the story to Thomas's date of birth. The first is in the second chapter (The Sins of the Forefathers) when he finds an old photograph of his mother, captioned "'Bournmouth, summer 1938' -- seven years before Thomas was born." This would suggest that he was born in the summer of 1945. This premise is confirmed in the chapter entitled "The Secret of the Ball" when Thomas visits the psychic Orlanda. She asks his date of birth, and he replies "July 1st 1945" (page 242).

Simple maths will tell you this means he was in fact eleven at the start of the novel, and just shy of 14 at its end. A pretty serious slip-up on the surface, but an egg in truth.

One explanation which has been put to me is that it was an editorial error borne out of the fact that the book contains a sex scene between Thomas and his girlfriend, Gwen Hackett. All we know of her age is that she was "half a year younger than Thomas" (page 7) making her also 13 at the time. The publishers simply decided that there was too much risk of it being construed as child pornography and insisted that the characters be made a couple of years older.

This may well be half an explanation, but it is highly improbable that, whilst correctly altering their ages (and that of their classmates) throughout the book, Robinson's editors would have missed the two references to Thomas's date of birth. Moreover, it is unthinkable that Robinson himself would have missed it, for July 1st 1945 is *his own date of birth*. Therein lies the egg.

Yes, folks, there is a far greater autobiographical element to this tale than the dust-jacket would have you believe. That also explains why the editors didn't take the other option of matching Thomas' age to his date of birth by altering the stated year in which the event took place. Robinson was insistent that the dates were left intact, and that only the stated ages were changed.

Why? I suggest you read the book. Thomas was a diarist, after all...

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  8.0/10 with 25 votes
Contributed By: D_D on 11-21-2001
Reviewed By: Webmaster
Special Requirements: A copy of the novel (page numbers refer to the Bloomsbury paperback edition)
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