Watching Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster, you do get a feeling Stephen Fry (Melchett in Blackadder, and Jeeves in J&W) has a flair for humour. And that’s what convinced me to buy this book.
I wouldn’t go to the extent some people go to, and elevate Mr. Fry to the level of Wodehouse, but I should certainly say he’s got a style of his own.
Getting to the book… I had no idea on what to expect. I hadn’t read much contemporary British fiction, save Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl and Bridget Jones, and those would definitely not be anything to go by.
The blurb reads, Ted Wallace is an old, sour, womanizing, cantankerous, whisky-sodden beast of a failed poet and drama critic, but he has his faults too… That got me right into the novel.
It opens with the aforementioned Mr. Wallace getting the sack, and not very long afterward, running into his long-lost god-daughter Jane.
It soon turns out that she’s dying of leukemia. The conversation turns to Jane’s uncle Michael, in whose mansion, miracles are whispered to be happening. And Jane engages her godfather to investigate the mysterious goings-on…
Most of the novel is told from Ted’s perspective. His cynical viewpoints, monologues full of dry sarcasm and passionate digressions are a pleasure to read. At times, you do happen to feel it’s Fry speaking, especially the cynical tirades, and the language at these points might seem showy, but it’s so engaging and entertaining, you are tempted to tolerate it. On his digressions, Ted says,
No, I fart this noxious guff in your faces not because it’s important or new, nor because I want to engage in a sterile debate about it, but because you have to understand something of my mood and disposition the day Jane found me and dragged me off to Kensington.
On looking at the interior decorator Jane’s house, he says,
“This is one of the most revolting rooms I’ve ever stood in all my life. It is exactly as hideous as I expected, and exactly as hideous as ten thousand rooms within pissing distance of here. It’s an insult to the eye and as fully degrading a cocktail of overpriced cliche as can be found outside Beverly Hills. I would no more park my arse on that sofa with its artfully clashing and vibrantly assorted cushions than I would eat a dog-turd. Congratulations on wasting an expensive education, a bankload of money and your whole sad life. Goodbye.”
That’s what I would have said with just two more fingers of whisky inside me. Instead, I managed a broken “My God.. Jane…”.
The narrative fits the story like a glove – most of the novel is told in the form of letters from Ted to Jane. There are short replies that suit to direct the reader’s attention to different aspects of the mysterious happenings. There are also letters and faxes from Jane’s other correspondent in the mansion, her friend Patricia who’s also heard of the mysterious healing powers of the place and is there to recuperate from a break-up. And a diary entry too, from the diary of a homosexual ex-padre friend of Michael’s and Ted’s who’s got “a cute lover and acute angina”, who’s also at the mansion for “some much needed R&R”, where R&R “is Eighties-speak and means Rest and Recreation, or possibly Rest and Recuperation, at a pinch, Rest and Relaxation. Not Rock and Roll, nor Rhyme and Reason, nor Rough and Ready, nor Radicals and Revolutionaries, nor Rum ‘n’ Raisin”.
There are also glimpses from the life of Michael’s son David, who seems to be at the epicenter of all the mysterious healing that has been going on. These serve to increase the suspense and shock value.
A backstory is also inserted in the form of an extract from the biography of Michael that Ted is supposed to be writing – an excuse for Ted to probe deeply about the nature of the miraculous happenings.
The story and the writing ensures there’s not a single dull moment, and the book does have its unputdownable moments, but there’s also this bit in the middle when it all but becomes apparent the nature of David’s healing powers, when you feel like having been invited to the wine cellar for ginger ale. But only for a page or two… Ted’s cynicism and sarcasm soon puts things into perspective.
All in all, a nice read, timepass, but certainly not a one-time read. It’s nothing deep, but the rich, fruity language and choice of words make for brilliant reading and re-reading. Story is straightforward, nothing complicated, but sort of can get you thinking on what social conditioning can do to an individual, if you are jobless enough. Full marks to the style of narration – the way the plot twists are unveiled to the unsuspecting reader, the way the facts are presented in the letters… all these we’ve (read I’ve) seen before only in books that took themselves too seriously, or where authors took the books too seriously for their own good, but the amazing lightness of this book along with the language and narrative are a brilliant combination.
I’d recommend it to be read. Preferably in a cynical state of mind – the empathy you’ll find in the first few pages will simply be mindblowing…. Ted says
If you’re a halfway decent human being you’ve probably been sacked from something in your time… school, seat on the board, sports team, club, satanic abuse group… something. You’ll know that feeling of elation that surges up inside you as you flounce from the headmaster’s study, clear your locker or sweep the pen-tidies from your desk. No use denying the fact, we all feel undervalued: to be told officially that we are off the case confirms our sense of not being fully appreciated by an insensitive world. This, in a curious fashion, increases what psychotherapists and assorted tripe-hounds of the media calls our self-esteem, because it proves we were right all along. It’s a rare experience in this world to be proved right on anything and it does wonders for the amour propre, even when, paradoxically, what we are proved right about is our suspicion that everyone considers us a waste of skin in the first place.
Addendum 1: Oh, and I also read Such A Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry… good read, loved the bits about R&AW, but they turn out to be damp squibs at the end… except for the threats and allusions to possible means of eliminating Sanjay Gandhi and Indira Gandhi… but you have to remember this book was written much after both their deaths. Mr. Mistry calls his work Indo-nostalgic. Thank God it’s more Indo than Nostalgic unlike most diaspora writers we’ve found in the past couple of decades. Got a kick finding this book… I’d seen trailers of the movie version around ten years back… with a young man telling his parents, “I’ve had it with your constant IIT, IIT, IIT!”. More than anything else, that line stuck with me… and I’ve had opportunity to use it a couple of times in the past ten years, and whenever I felt irritated, I’ve taken solace in that one line…. there you go, Indo and Nostalgic.
Addendum 2: Don’t watch an Indian-made whodunit (in my case, Ramesh Arvind’s Accident, which actually is pretty well-made, though the script could have been aeons better… still beats any Bollywood “thriller” or “whodunit” hollow… except maybe gems like Manorama Six Feet Under.) after two days of continuously devouring Feluda stories. You’ll end up laughing your head off at the cinema hall and inviting stares and nasty threats.
Addendum 3: It’s amazing to find so many people riding on someone else’s popularity wave… next to this book, I find a stack of books by “Stephen Frey”… no dry British humor, just cheap American pulp-fic. You also can find books by “Dale Brown”. Barry Trotter, The Da Vinci Cod… *sigh* the very sight of these makes me want to cry.