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Black Gothic comedy at its very finest
Gormenghast - Mervyn Peake
Member Name: grahamt
Gormenghast - Mervyn Peake
Date: 29/11/11, updated on 29/11/11 (83 review reads)
Advantages: It can read alone or as the second of a trilogy
Disadvantages: It's a long book ; it requires some patience
I'd heard so much about this book but had never read it, or any of the others in the series. I was waiting for them to become available from someone on Bookmooch but as it happened the first on offer was this one rather than the first in the trilogy - Titus Groan. So, it was with some trepidation that I started reading Gormenghast, not knowing if it would be a mistake to do so as it had been trying to read one of Stephen King's Dark Tower series out of order. I needn't have worried.
Gormenghast stands it's ground as a novel in its own right; you do not need to have first read Titus Groan to be able to get full enjoyment from this second book in the series, although I will go back and read the first when I can lay my hands on a copy.
Gormenghast can best be described as a Gothic Black Comedy but even this doesn't really do it justice. The setting is so bizarre that it almost stands as a genre in its own right. Certainly, I've never read anything quite like it, even from masters of the Gothic like James Herbert and the aforementioned Stephen King.
We find ourselves in a decaying world of ancient privilege set within a grounds of a vast citadel that is part seat of power, part castle and part city. However, the various buildings and districts are largely deserted of their original occupants, whose fate is unexplained. Those parts within the walls of the citadel that are occupied are so by the family Groan and their servants and dependants. Outside is mostly unknown, and inhabited by the destitute, who have virtually no interaction with the citizens.
The two main characters are: Titus Groan himself who, with the death of his father has assumed the title of the seventy-seventh Earl of Groan. He is as yet a teenager and so under the influence of his mother and her entourage. Supposedly he lives a life determined by protocol and ceremony based on rules devised hundreds of years earlier and whose purpose is largely lost in the mists of time; and Steerpike who, it appears, was a kitchen boy in the first novel in the series but one with ambitions above his station. Steerpike want to depose the family Groan and assume ruler-ship of the domain for himself. He is determined to achieve his objective by any means possible, preferably murder.
Titus, in growing into his predestined role is being brought up as a "normal" youngster, educated alongside the children of the families which serve the Groans. However, he has serious doubts about whether he even wants to assume the leadership of this decayed dynasty. If Steerpike has his way, the decision will be taken out of his hands.
As the bodies pile up, the identity of the villain has yet to be discovered but Titus is on the hunt. Who will finally triumph and, what then?
Peake's writing style is quite extraordinary: I have yet to read a book where there is so much narrative compared with the events that are being described. You find that you may have read four or five pages and yet nothing has actually happened. Peake describes the thought of characters and their situations in minute detail. Even when you reach the end you sit and think, "What has actually taken place that could possible occupy over 500 pages!"
Don't get me wrong though, I loved the book. You just get lost in the narrative, so rich is the writing. This is truly painting with words in the finest possible sense. It is fair to say that the action does tend to rattle along towards the end when the battle between the major protagonists takes place.
I will certainly return to the first book in due course and will also read the final book written entirely by Peake (a sequel finished by his widow was also published) - Titus Alone. As it is, if you, like me, was curious to find out what all the fuss was about then, don't hesitate.
Also posted on Goodreads.
Summary: A brilliant modern classic that fully derves its reputation