David Trimble reviews deWitt‘s Undermajordomo
Old buildings intrigue us. Their appearance drapes them in character. They appear to us so full of mysteries and stories and ghosts. It is no surprise then that two previous Man Booker-nominees, David Mitchell and Patrick deWitt, have recently crafted novels centred around old buildings.
Patrick deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor is an odd beast of a book. Imagine a collaboration between Franz Kafka and the Brothers Grimm filtered through the lens of Wes Anderson and you might get close to the tone of it. It is a European fairy-tale centred on the mysterious Castle von Aux and, although deWitt peoples his narrative with a myriad of interesting characters, it is, from start to finish, the castle which proves the most towering personality. Whilst Lucy (the male protagonist) is for the most part engaging and amusing, he has a tendency to dwindle in the background. His desire at the outset is for ‘something to happen’. Whilst something does happen it is, by the end of the novel, relatively unclear exactly what. He has met a catalogue of odd personalities from the Majordomo, Mr Olderglough, who would not be out of place in the Grand Budapest Hotel, to the mysterious Countess whose arrival triggers all sorts of bizarre goings on in the castle. A particularly strange after-dinner display is the high-point (or perhaps the low-point) of this and is somewhat confusing, one has to concede, in narrative terms.
What Undermajordomo Minor is, however, is a lot of fun. There are parts that seem quite a little unnecessary perhaps, the twists are rather more linear than I was hoping for, and the castle, for all its promise of mystery, gives up its secrets rather too quickly, morphing from gothic mystery to comedy of manners with a dark fairy-tale soul by the end. But, from the title alone, it is clear deWitt intends to create something that is, at heart, a joyous comedy, and on this front he succeeds whether it is the short, snappy dialogue between Lucy and Mr Olderglough with its comic directness, or the attempts to ‘locate, apprehend, and restore the Baron to normality’. Normality, however, rarely rears its head in this novel but when it does it is in the romantic plot between Lucy and Klara. This allows the odd plot a little room for reflection and a separation from the characters who often seem more animal than human. The whole novel can possibly, in this respect, be summed up in this short, beautiful dialogue between the lovers:
‘“But the earth is not an animal.” Lucy said.
‘Yes it is,’ Klara told him, and she gripped his fingers ever tighter.’
Whilst not always hitting all the right beats, Undermajordomo Minor is quirky, funny and a surprisingly tender take on the modern gothic fairy-tale.
Now, where deWitt uses a castle to explore his fairy-tale romance, David Mitchell uses the titular Slade House to craft a ghost story spanning fifty years that forms yet another part of his grand ‘uber-novel’. Slade House, as well as containing all the usual references to his back-catalogue, is linked even closer to his last offering, 2014’s The Bone Clocks (becoming not quite a sequel, maybe a side-quel?), with the plot picking up on the war between the Horologists and the Shaded Way. For those new to the Mitchell-verse, do not worry, the story is still accessible without the background reading. But, whereas The Bone Clocks kept the readers tied (more or less) to the story of Holly Sykes, Slade House follows five different characters across five decades who are all led to the mysterious Slade House that only appears on Halloween every nine years. It allows for another narrative that transcends time in a similar way to The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas but at its length, 233 pages, this has the problem of distancing the reader from the characters. If we are lucky we get to spend 50 pages with them and as such the ghost story fails on the most important element – fear. Fear works when we can invest in characters we like and know. Except perhaps the tragic Sally Timms, a piece of beautiful characterisation, often there is not enough to care about and fear becomes rather academic. Like watching someone else jump rather than getting a fright yourself.
The recurring characters we do have are the Grayer Twins, ‘atemporals’ who feed off souls to grant themselves immortality, but as they take a variety of disguises throughout they do not give the reader much to hold on to. Instead, the main character that we are drawn to is Slade House itself and this is where the book excels. There is a reason it gives its name to the novel and the house which ‘feels like a board game co-designed by M.C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King on speed’ according to Sally Timms, is always at the centre of the story. Less a ghost story, more a pan-generational puzzle box disguised as a haunted house. And one done with a certain degree of flair as, despite the lack of character connection, it is a thoroughly compelling read.
Whilst not as complex or as daunting as some of Mitchell’s other novels, Slade House is an enjoyable addition to the Mitchell canon and is worth spending a winter evening with. An appropriately modern novel, having originated as a Twitter short story, it is perhaps appropriate that Slade House modernises haunted houses just as Undermajordomo Minor modernises the fairy-tale romance in the gothic castle. Old buildings can be made new in fiction but they certainly can never grow too old.