Mervyn Peake (1911-68), poet, novelist and illustrator, is best remembered for writing the Gormenghast trilogy. Less well-remembered is this charming and fairly short novel (around 230 pages). It is a deceptively light, even amusing story, but with dark undertones.
First published in 1953, this is the tale of Harold Pye, a kind-hearted, rather naive missionary who is driven by an all-embracing desire to do good. From the moment the Pear-drop (known as such behind his back as he is never without a bag of peardrops which he offers around to everyone) arrives by ferry from the British mainland on the island of Sark, he is determined to spread sweetness and light, and make everyone there love one another. The Great Pal, he tells them, will help and is looking over them all.
Shortly after he gets there, he discovers that his landlady, the tough no-nonsense Miss Dredger, has long been having a feud with her near-neighbour Miss George. Having discovered that she is no longer mistress in her own house, the startled Miss Dredger becomes his most loyal disciple. Slightly against her better judgment, she is then persuaded to bury the hatchet with her old enemy, even inviting her to come and stay in the house with them. He soon makes friends with others who are initially a little taken aback by him, notably the painter Thorpe and the cheerful, ever-available Tintagieu, 'five foot three inches of sex', who is inclined to break off any conversations by saying that she needs to get home because her dolly needs her. (What the dolly is, we never quite discover).
Next he decides he will throw a picnic to which everyone on the island is invited. It is going to be the scene of a glorious conversion for everyone, and they will all live in peace and harmony ever afterwards. But as he is just about to make a speech, a rotting whale is washed up on the shore. It stinks them all out and they run away as soon as possible.
Undaunted, Mr Pye is determined to continue doing good, even to those who regard him with hostility. But his saintliness has an unforeseen and near-catastrophic side-effect. Has he been bitten on the back by insects, or are more supernatural factors having a rather peculiar game with him? Is the Great Pal rewarding him a little too much for his wonderful works?
To find out what happens next - you will have to read the book.
This is perhaps best described perhaps as a gentle comic novel, or even black comedy. Was it Peake's intention to make the reader ponder the issues of good and evil, or just to write an entertaining and slightly surreal story? I suspect a bit of both. The author had come unpleasantly close to human evil when he was officially commissioned by a magazine to visit the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen shortly after the end of the Second World War, and draw pictures of the dead and dying. It was an experience which needless to say had a profound effect on his mental health for the rest of his days. This partly explains the grimmer side of the happenings in the Gormenghast books, and maybe to an extent the more whimsical but disturbing elements at play here.
Peake has the gift of telling a story well, with the descriptive powers of a true poet, and there are several delightful touches to be found here in his prose. For example, one of the characters in the book has a surprisingly flat face; 'thousands of years of ice and blizzard, of scorching sun and withering sandstorms could not have reduced a marble face to anything like so featureless a thing....The rumour that he had had it trodden on by an elephant when young was quite untrue.' In fact, all his family were the same - they had no profiles. As for Mr Pye himself, he is a man 'who had given Sark so much food for thought that it was no wonder that it suffered from flatulence.'
I first read the Gormenghast books in my teens and found them fascinating. A couple of years later I followed them with this stand-alone title, and found it very different from the saga of Titus Groan and his family. It takes place in a recognisable location, rather than in a fantasy world, and is therefore more rooted in reality. Yet the same strange air of unreality is there. It's neither science fiction, nor fantasy, nor pure comic fiction, but perhaps a little of all three. Whatever, I found it an extremely unusual and entertaining read. Try it. The author's drawings which adorn the head of each chapter are likewise rather appealing.
In 1986 it was adapted for a four-part Channel 4 series starring Derek Jacobi, and has recently been issued on DVD. You can also see the whole series on Youtube, each episode being around 55 minutes. I recall several people, including members of my family, thoroughly enjoying it on TV even though they had never read the book.
[Revised version of a review I originally published on other sites]