Monday, April 02, 2007

book of books - Gormenghast

This is the second book in the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake and it ties up all of the loose ends of the first book and the first half of the second volume bar one, the restless nature of Titus, which is dealt with in the final volume.

There is a pace about the book that starts to grip you as firstly Steerpike is exposed and then as the chase for him intensifies. The castle has to fight evil not just in the form of the usurper but also in the shape of nature, as the castle is flooded. Titus goes from being a boy in the first book and becomes a man through experience of death and bravery. Against the backdrop of the struggle against Steerpike, tradition and nature the castle looms large and the descriptive powers of Peake are what makes this a great novel rather than a bargain bucket fantasy wannabe.

Plot summary
It is easier to say what happens based on character rather than trying to weave some concise narrative:
Steerpike - Having wormed his way into a position where he can advise on traditional and castle procedure Steerpike starts to plan his next move, which includes overcoming his superior Barquentine. Meanwhile the twins outlive their usefulness and are allowed to die of starvation after they try to kill him.
Doctor and Irma - The Doctor’s sister gets the academic staff round for a party and ends up falling for the headmaster Bellgrove and is finally off her brother’s hands but just when the doctor should be there for Fuchsia and Titus he has to deal with the flood and its victims
Fuchsia – having been courted by Steerpike who turns out to be a disappointment the unloved girl considers suicide and accidentally fall into the waters of the flood and drowns
Barquentine – the son of Sourdust carries on the traditions of Gormenghast and is a stronger opponent than Steerpike thought and the two fight and in fire and then water the younger man wins but is scarred physically and mentally
Flay – the old servant is the one who along with Titus and the doctor discovers Steerpike has killed the twins and in return for his hard work Steerpike kills him as he escapes
The Countess – always looking for the source of evil in the castle she comes into her own not just in the hunt for Steerpike but also marshalling the castle in the flood
The thing – Keda’s daughter lives in the woods and fascinates Titus who grapples with her and then watches her dies as a result of a lightning strike
Titus – growing up he wants to escape and his restlessness breed’s contempt of tradition and in the end he grows up watching the thing die and then kills Steerpike and becomes the man that leaves the castle

Steerpike is at the heart of the story; both in terms of whether or not he will be caught, and then once discovered whether or not he will be captured. He is found out and then killed by Titus but his death is not enough of a reason for the Earl to stay in the castle.

Is it well written?
The description is rich and so well done that in the long section when Steerpike is trying to evade his hunters in a flooded room you can see clearly the situation with the swell of the water and the reflected lights. The characters that were half formed in the first book are completed here with Fuchsia, the doctor and the countess all becoming rounder. Equally there is slightly more humour with the academic world of Gormenghast providing plenty of amusing characters and incidents. But just as with the first book it is the castle and the environment that holds the story together. The weird feeling you get is that as things reach a climax you are wondering just what is left for the third volume and having read that the best thing might be to look at this book and Titus Groan as a complete piece with Titus Alone as a book that echoes characters and location but not much more.

Should it be read?
Just as the feeling you get with Return of the King after you have trawled through The Two Towers this is the pay-off for a total across both books of 700 odd pages. If you embark on the Gormenghast journey it is hard not to complete both books. But, and I’ll be the first to admit my experience of strong imaginative fantasy type novels is limited, this book shows just what can be achieved when a powerful imagination is let loose. But it would not be anywhere near as good without the strong description and brilliant characterisation. It shows just what is possible if you have the ability to paint a picture with words that not matter how fantastic in terms of environment still can be clearly envisaged by the reader.

Ruthless Steerpike makes two mistakes, allowing the twins to be found and giving Titus the chance to strike first, and pays the price while the castle rumbles on despite nature trying to do its best to destroy it

Version read – Vintage paperback

There is more to be said about Gormenghast particularly on the themes of nature and progress and about love and the absence of it but that will come in a separate post…

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